ESPN's Punch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Victories Could Come at a Heavy Cost
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch thinks changes made to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) qualifying and championship formats this season will fuel a level of competition reminiscent of the sport's win-at-all-costs founding eras.
Punch visited Louisville, Ky., to provide perspective on a season that has the makings of one which will be remembered well into the future as NASCAR implements a 16-driver, four-round elimination format for the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that places a premium on race victories along with two to three rounds of knockout qualifying depending on track length.
"In my 30 years of NASCAR, I'm probably as excited as I've ever been because of the energy level, the unknowns and the incredible number of storylines," Punch said.
Here are his top headline-making scenarios for the 36-event NSCS journey that begins with the Feb. 23 Daytona 500:
Unpredictable Kentucky Speedway Track Conditions Will Yield Great Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts Competition
"Drivers come to us on television and say, 'Whatever you do, don't touch that racetrack.' That racetrack has character - it's rough, it's bumpy. We don't know what to expect lap after lap.
"Here's the best part. If we (drivers/reporters) don't know what's going to happen, fans in the stands don't what's going to happen and people watching at home don't know what's going to happen, then it's a great place to come watch a race, it's a great place to tune in to watch a race. It's great racing."
Emphasis on Chase Victories and Eliminations Will Create Late-Race Aggression
"Kyle Busch said It will totally change what happens at the end of a race. Now, the fans in the stands, the fans coming to Kentucky Speedway, the fans that are watching on television, they know that something's going to happen. They know it's about to get really, really rough because it has to. You don't have to wreck someone, but you may have to move them or get them out of the way.
"The final 10 laps made NASCAR and now the final 10 laps are back. It's not about sitting back and finishing seventh or ninth to have a good points day. You've got to win the race.
"You think Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch would make contact with each other to win a race? Yeah, they would. What'd Tony Stewart say a few years ago? I'd run over my mother to win? It's what they do, and this year, there's a lot more at stake to be able to get into the Chase and to be able to move on from each segment.
"How about a track like Kentucky Speedway where it's rough and hard to handle? You've got to hang on. These guys are going to be all over each other in qualifying and in the race to get to Victory Lane.
"Winning could come at a pretty heavy cost. The drivers and NASCAR both know there's going to be a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. It's turning back the clock where winning meant everything back in the day. Now it means everything again."
Knockout Qualifying Will Create Wild Sessions
"It means Fridays (or qualifying days) are going to be wild. NASCAR knows it could be very aggressive in these sessions. A couple of drivers said NASCAR better start beefing up security in the garage areas because they're going to need it after qualifying and definitely going to need it after the race.
"Drivers realize they're under the gun, they're under pressure from the get go. When they come (to the track), they've got to get it done. It's going to get heated because there's so much at stake. It's going to be a better race, a better show for fans, for television, for everybody involved.
"Traffic, drafting, strategy, so much is going to into qualifying now. You basically know, before the weekend begins, who your friends are. Who do you hurt? Who do you crowd? Who do you keep from getting a clean lap? That's going to anger a lot of folks. It will be very interesting."
New Chase Format Can Shuffle the Traditional Sprint Cup Series Power Deck
"If you win a race, you automatically move on to the next round. In the Eliminator Round, you have eight drivers with three races to get to the (four) championship (positions). If three different guys win a race; that means only one spot is available for someone in points. That is tremendous pressure.
"In the championship finale, it's four drivers, one race, one championship, Homestead-Miami Speedway. No bonus points for leading laps, it's whoever finishes the better among those four drivers is the champion.
"If this system were in effect a year ago, Matt Kenseth would not have made the finale because he had trouble in the Eliminator Round. Who would have been NASCAR's Sprint Cup Champion? Dale Earnhardt Jr. What a difference a year makes."
New Ride Height Rule May Have the Greatest Impact on Competition
"NASCAR is going to statically measure ride height one time at the beginning of the weekend. Height will not be measured prerace and postrace.
"How important is that? Last week, there were more than 20 cars testing at the now defunct Nashville Superspeedway because they don't know what to expect. They're still trying to figure out what it means.
"Teams are going to be able to do a lot of things to make the car drive better, handle better and race better - especially on the mile-and-a-half racetracks. Based on the racetrack, teams are going to be able to move the front ends of the cars up and down with springs and shocks to make the car drive better. They'll adapt it to the track. That's going to make the sport better and make passing better."
Strong-Willed Stewart-Haas Racing Personalities Will Add Intensity Each Week
"Watch this team. Do you want to be in that debrief meeting after practice and qualifying with Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick? You might want to wear helmets in that truck.
"Every one of those individuals is a competitor and wants to win. What a great team, all with Hendrick (Motorsports) supplied cars and engines."
Tickets, campsites and infield Fan Zone passes for the venue's Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts, the June 27 NASCAR Nationwide Series 300-mile race and June 26 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 225 can be purchased by calling (859) 578-2300, through the tickets pages of this website or by visiting the ticket office at 1 Speedway Drive just off Interstate 71 Exit 57 and Ky. Hwy. 35 in Sparta, Ky.
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