Rolling the dice: NASCAR all-in
Upon us now is the season of NASCAR's most sweeping changes ever.
I say that, but I've only been covering NASCAR since the summer of 1974, so don't take my word for it.
Richard Petty has been around NASCAR since 1949, the summer he turned 12, traveling with his father, Lee, through the maiden season of the Strictly Stock series that has evolved these past 65 years into the Sprint Cup championship.
You might put '49 in the ballpark with 2014 for change, because that's the year NASCAR grew out of the modified division -- essentially moonshine-running cars -- with which it had begun in '48. But that was a planned move. The modifieds were temporary, just until post-World War II Detroit could resume full assembly-line production of new cars for the Strictly Stock division.
OK, so what about it, King? Ever seen anything like this? Knockout qualifying, with groups scrambling in timed sessions? Win a single race and almost certainly get into the Chase? Win a Chase race and advance to the next round? Fail to win and risk elimination? Be free of postrace inspections of car height, so that the clutter of "the car's too low" or "the car's too high" defacement of a win will be eliminated?
All at once? All for 2014?
Anything like this, anytime in the history of NASCAR's premier series?
"No, no, no," Petty said with emphatic certainty on the phone the other day. "They've changed not just one thing, they've changed five or six things. Most of the time they've been really conservative about making changes. They're starting to gamble now."
They're gambling that the extreme makeover will jump-start public interest that peaked soon after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 and has been flat to mixed, mostly waning, ever since.
They're gambling that NASCAR won't further alienate its traditionalist fan base, which has been pretty much in open rebellion against third-generation czar Brian France for the decade since he ascended the throne in 2003 and quickly instituted the Chase playoff format for 2004.
They're gambling, at the essence, at the marrow, that the changes will produce another Dale Earnhardt, or Fireball Roberts, or Junior Johnson, or Richard Petty -- a thoroughbred American hero, an all-out, all-the-time racer, through whom Everyman can live vicariously, in a way not felt en masse since Earnhardt died.
Hinton: Legends like it
NASCAR has changed the way a driver earns the big trophy ... again. Qualifying will be different, too. What do Humpy Wheeler, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson and Bobby Allison think? Get ready for a surprise, writes Ed Hinton. Column
• Hinton: A kick-start
• Hinton: A fabulous five
Most of all, they're gambling that this massive manipulation of format won't backfire. The poet Robert Burns might cite the best-laid plans of mice, men and NASCAR marketing executives here.
Under this structure, a winless Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the 2013 championship, according to calculations by NASCAR's own in-house news and analysis website, NASCAR.com. In 2012, the calculations have it, one-win Kyle Busch would have been champion, rather than missing the Chase altogether as he did that year.
Not since 2011 would the 2014 format have produced the same champion, Tony Stewart. But that kind of season is pretty close to the kind NASCAR is trying to stimulate now. Although Stewart entered the playoffs winless, he won five of 10 Chase races, including the finale in dramatic fashion.
He won by winning. By running all-out, all the time, throughout the Chase.
After decades of fan annoyance at hearing drivers say they were happy with "a good points day" and a top-10 finish, NASCAR finally got, and implemented, the message: People want drivers who hate to lose. The rest takes care of itself.
And this mode takes us back to pre-Earnhardt, who at times was known to point race himself. This takes us back to win-or-else. Just like in movie scripts. And just like the reality of yore, when the Fireballs and the Juniors and the Curtis Turners and the LeeRoy Yarbroughs and Cale Yarboroughs had but one bent whenever a race started: win.
"I always figured if you win the most races, you're going to win the championship," said Petty, whose 1967 championship came with 27 wins, whose '71 title came with 21, and whose '75 championship in a shortened schedule came with 13 -- still a modern-era record shared with Jeff Gordon in 1998.
"The only time you paid attention to the point standings or the championship was when you got down to the last three or four races," Petty said.
A win-or-else mindset could turn loose this class of Cup rookies, especially the already-proven charger Kyle Larson, the projected chargers Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt, and, most watched of all -- for better or worse -- the fresh-faced, polite Austin Dillon in cars carrying the fiercely slanted "3" flown so notoriously for so long by the rough, gruff, charismatically ruthless Earnhardt himself.
Some suspect an ulterior motive is slowing down or stopping the onslaught of Jimmie Johnson, who has won six of the past eight championships. Yet the all-time maestro of all-out, all the time, Junior Johnson, believes Jimmie not only will survive but thrive in the win-or-else mode, because he already "don't just loaf around out there."
But the people aren't the point this time. The freshest faces are on the system itself -- the structural changes in the championship, in qualifying, and even in technical enforcement.
I'm not so much looking forward to the Feb. 23 Daytona 500 as looking forward to getting it over with. Only when it's done will we start to see the picture NASCAR has sketched.
Knockout qualifying won't apply going into the 500. NASCAR will stick with the established money-making format, the twin 150-mile qualifying races.
The best part of this month at Daytona is, hopefully, what we won't see: the nitpicky infractions and zero-tolerance penalties -- the hitting of tacks with sledgehammers -- that have disrupted Speedweeks of the past.
It's hard to decipher all of NASCAR's new enforcement policies until we see them applied, but it appears the new warning system essentially will go back to the common-sense era when inspectors would find a violation, then tell the crew chief to go correct that and bring it back through the line. No penalty, just a warning, the way it used to be, and the way it should be.
This time, hopefully, if they catch a No. 48 car with a slightly varied rear-window configuration, they'll tell Chad Knaus to go fix it and bring it back, that day, end of problem, rather than escorting him out of the track and suspending him for weeks.
One tidbit of change that has gone virtually unnoticed amid the larger changes is the substantive little matter of "static race ride height," where the height of the car is fixed. No more too-high, too-low postrace complications.
And, the instant the checkered flag falls on the 500, Jeff Gordon's long-running argument that "One Daytona 500 victory does not a championship make" won't be so true anymore.
Where for decades NASCAR's showcase race, as the season-opener, has been virtually irrelevant to the championship, we'll see, standing in Victory Lane, a driver who is off to a very good start -- the first almost-certain qualifier for the Chase.
Then beginning at Phoenix on March 2 we'll see the knockout qualifying, which simply cannot hurt. One-car qualifying for decades has been the drowsiest part of a race weekend, and has signified nearly nothing. Now, there's an extra show, essentially a race, on qualifying day. Formula One has been enormously successful with knockout, and you can bet that even the NASCAR traditionalists who grouse about it will watch it on TV or even return to the grandstands that have been empty for one-car qualifying.
Also at Phoenix, we'll see the next Chase qualifier in Victory Lane, and the next at Las Vegas, and so on. A David Ragan wins at Talladega in May, as he did last year, and this is no longer just a flukish feel-good story. This guy is headed for the playoffs, already. Same with a Dillon, a Larson, a Kligerman, a Whitt, a Justin Allgaier ...
Whether a dark-horse winner's team has the wherewithal to make a serious Chase run is another matter. That's why expansion from a 12-driver field to 16 doesn't bother me -- that field will be culled quickly, with eliminations after the first three races, then the next three and the next three, down to a final four in the finale at Homestead-Miami.
There are critics of coming down to "just" four at Homestead, but that's more than usually are realistically in the running by then. Last year there were only two, Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
"There is no standing still," NASCAR's second, longest-reigning and most effective czar, Bill France Jr., once told me. "You're either moving forward or you're falling behind."
But "If he had been here, they wouldn't have gambled on all of it," Petty pointed out, because France Jr. always moved methodically, cautiously, slowly. "He'd have picked one and said, 'Let's make it work before we go to the next one,' I think. I knew him. You knew him. That's the way he did it."
But France Jr. never faced the exponential acceleration of change in society in general that his son, Brian, now faces. Maybe, amid the swirl of smart phones and video games and extreme sports, where traditional sports have trouble hanging on with today's generation, France Jr. would have moved this quickly, this radically, too.
Brian France has gone all-in.
"I'm OK with it," Petty said.
I don't see where Brian had much choice. So all in all, I like the bet.