Change is in the air – along with the sound of rumbling engines – as NASCAR revs up for the beginning of the 2016 racing season. The first official event of the year was held Jan. 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C., as approximately 250 motorsports journalists met with NASCAR executives, team owners, drivers and crew chiefs during the sport’s 34th annual preseason Media Tour.
While there were plenty of familiar faces in attendance – including fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson – there were also several areas where NASCAR is shifting gears in 2016, introducing new rules designed to generate additional excitement on the track.
● The playoff-style Chase for the Championship that has been employed in various forms in the Sprint Cup Series since 2004 will now be used in both the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series. The top 12 drivers in the Xfinity Series standings with seven races remaining will be eligible to compete for the championship, while the top eight drivers in the Truck Series standings with seven races left will be in the running for the title. Before this year, those two series still used a season-long accumulation of points to determine the champion.
The Chase format encourages drivers to race hard for victories, since eligibility for the Chase is based first upon the number of wins a driver has during the season instead of total points. “The culture we want in our sport is to go out and win the race,” said Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR. “We’re looking forward to seeing that type of racing (in all three series) this season.”
● In one of the more intriguing changes, the Truck Series will now feature a caution clock. At the start of each green-flag run, a clock will begin counting down from 20 minutes. If a caution does not occur naturally before the clock hits zero, then the yellow flag will automatically be waved and the drivers will have the opportunity to pit. This will enable teams to make any needed adjustments to the truck and ensure that the field will not become too spread out on the track, as can often happen during long stretches of green-flag racing.
“We think this is going to add to the strategy in the race,” O’Donnell said. “That is an area where some of our younger drivers (and) newer teams can really use the competition caution to adjust the truck. We think that is going to be huge for the teams.”
● In another effort to increase on-track racing excitement, the aerodynamic design of Sprint Cup Series cars is being adjusted to create less downforce, which drivers say will give them more control of the car and create additional passing opportunities. Under the new package, the rear spoiler is being lowered from 6 inches to 3.5, the front splitter will decrease from 2 inches to 0.25, and the radiator pan will be narrowed from 38 inches in width to 33.
The changes were used in two races last year – at Darlington and Kentucky – and were met with rave reviews from the drivers. “I loved the package,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after last year’s Darlington race. “The car was a lot of fun to drive all night.”
● But perhaps the biggest change of all this year has nothing to do with rules or aerodynamics. It is the switch in drivers behind the wheel of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports car, where Sprint Cup rookie Chase Elliott is replacing four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Gordon hung up his racing helmet at the end of last season after 23 years and 93 victories. He will still be around the sport, however, as a television racing analyst for Fox Sports. And while Gordon will have to be objective in his new role, he makes it clear that one car will continue to have a special place in his heart.
“I love the number 24 car. I want to see the 24 go on to do great things,” Gordon said. “I think our fans want to see the 24 car continue on with the right person and be successful with the right guy. And Chase is the right guy.”