Wednesday, March 8, 2017

ROOKIE STRIPE: Why the 2017 NASCAR Season Could be Really Intense -- A Rookie’s Explanation


Photo Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
by Logan Stewart

In case you missed it, there were a lot of crashes during the 2017 NASCAR season openers in Daytona. There was a 17-car collision during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Friday night, then an 18-car melee the following day during the Xfinity Series race, just before the conclusion of the first stage. Kurt Busch took home the Daytona 500 win, his first in 16 attempts, after a chaotic race in which five drivers ran out of gas.

The Daytona 500 is lauded as NASCAR’s pinnacle race, taking place at the beginning, rather than the end of the season, unlike most professional sports. People commonly describe it as the Super Bowl of NASCAR, so racing naturally can get downright raw and competitive. But 2017 looks to be a banner year, because along with a new title sponsor NASCAR has implemented a new racing format and playoff point incentives intended to amp up the competition and making racing even more thrilling.

I’ve grown in my knowledge over the past few years, one lugnut at a time, but as a rookie my perception of NASCAR was a pack of cars racing around and around an oval for hours. They seemed to go nowhere, just pushed for the first-place spot until one crossed the finish line. But as you’ll learn over time, there’s strategy in racing that’s practically mathematical. Rules and calculations and human performance all factor into what often seems like pure pandemonium at the track.

I’ll be totally honest: When the new racing format came out this year, I was confused and almost felt like a rookie again. But after some digestion, I came up with a few general explanations of how things have changed and how they may turn up the heat. Here are a few reasons why 2017 is shaping up to be an intense, exhilarating NASCAR season.

Photo Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
Triple Threat: the Three Stages
As part of NASCAR’s changes this year, races now consist of three stages. How many laps are in each stage depends on the track. For example, the Daytona 500 was three stages of 60, 60 and 80 laps.

The top-ten finishers in each stage get points that count toward the championship. So ultimately how does this affect races? It’s intended to heat up rivalry and elicit aggressive racing, and so far that’s just what we’ve seen. Drivers and teams want to maximize points during each stage, thus the competition is frenetic nearly the entire race.

Streamlining Speeds
One thing to know: NASCAR’s rules package -- or rules that drivers and teams have to follow each race -- changes from year to year. In 2016 it included decreased downforce, or how air moves over the top of the car to push it towards the track surface. NASCAR lessened that downforce even more in 2017. To abide by the rules, teams must make aerodynamic modifications to meet requirements, forcing slower speeds in the corners. As a result, cars become more difficult to handle.

Why is this downforce change a big deal? Drivers have the wheel when it comes to deciding how and when to go fast, rather than the engineers who design their cars. So really it comes down to how hungry the drivers are to win. Downforce effects are harder to judge at superspeedways, but shorter tracks with more frequent turns should clearly demonstrate the impact of the change. See an illustration of the 2017 NASCAR rules package that illustrates downforce here.

Tick-Tock: On Borrowed Time

Five minutes isn’t a lot of time, but it’s everything when it comes to NASCAR’s new Damaged Vehicle Policy, which is in place for all three series and is likely to significantly impact race outcomes.

Once a damaged passes the pit road entrance for repairs, the team has approximately five minutes to fix it. If they finish repairs in less than five minutes they can continue in the race, but if they cannot or if the car has to go to the garage, they’re out of time – and eliminated from the race. Talk about racing the clock.

Furthermore, if a car has so much damage it has to go to the garage from the get-go, that driver will be eliminated from the race and cannot return even to get points. This big change from previous years may position some regular underdogs for an unexpected win. So, we're looking at you, rookie drivers!

Photo Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs




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