NASCAR set for important test at repaved Daytona

Posted Jan. 19, 2011, at 7:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 19, 2011, at 8:52 p.m.

ATLANTA — Jamie McMurray likes the idea of switching to a new points system to determine the NASCAR champion.

Specifically, one he actually understands.

“The points system we have right now is really confusing,” McMurray said Wednesday during a promotional stop in downtown Atlanta, where he posed with the 2011 version of the trophy he won at last year’s Daytona 500. “And not just for the average fan who watches the race. Everyone in our sport is confused by the way our points system is right now.”

NASCAR has floated the idea of dumping the complicated system it has used since 1975 — which, according to legend, was drawn out on a napkin over drinks in a Daytona bar — in favor of a simpler method that awards points based directly on the finishing position in the 43-car field.

In other words, 43 points for first, down to a single point for last. Also, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship would be determined by the top 10 drivers in the points, plus two wild-card spots for the next two with the most wins.

That certainly would have benefited McMurray last season, when he won at three of the most famous tracks on the circuit — Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte — but missed the Chase because he was outside of the top 12 in overall points.

Not that he would’ve traded the wins he had for a shot at the title.

“Just to make the Chase is not that big a deal for me,” McMurray said to a reporter. “You couldn’t tell me who finished 12th in the points last year. You have no clue. Neither does anyone else. But they know who won the Daytona 500.”

A revised points method is one of the hot-button issues heading into a season that ended just two months ago with Jimmie Johnson winning his record fifth straight title and cranks up again Thursday with an open test at Daytona International Speedway, site of next month’s season opener.

The Super Bowl of stock car racing is coming off an embarrassing race last year, won by McMurray in a thrilling finish but only after two long delays caused by potholes in the track.

Daytona International Speedway spent $20 million to totally repave the track, a five-month job that was completed in time for a December tire test. Some 40 teams are expected for the first big test, this three-day session.

Speedway president Joie Chitwood, who accompanied McMurray to Atlanta for a meet-and-greet with local Daytona ticket-holders, said the track is working hard to regain the trust of the fans after the embarrassment of 2010.

“We didn’t give ‘em the event they expected,” Chitwood said. “This year, we hope we spent the right money to fix the problem and we have a great event.”

McMurray expects the repaved track to create a much more exciting race Feb. 20, even though he was initially against the idea of putting down a new surface.

“Daytona has always been that place that you had to make the car handle,” he said. “The guys who were able to do that really prided themselves on making their car drive good.”

After testing in December, McMurray had a change of heart.

“It’s remarkable the amount of grip the track has and the packs we’re able to run in,” he said. “We’re really able to run three-wide for the entire fuel run, which is something we’ve never had at Daytona, at least not since I’ve been racing. From a fan’s perspective, i think it’s going to be really good and a really exciting 500 to watch.”

For the drivers, though, it means a lot more white-knuckle moments, much like the grind of the tightly packed 500 miles of racing that has been the norm at the other restrictor-plate track, Talladega.

NASCAR has mandated plates that sap even more horsepower than the ones used during the December test, looking to keep speeds under 200 mph but likely ensuring no one will be able to put any distance on the field.

“You’re not going to see a group break away,” McMurray said. “It’s going to be really close and hopefully we don’t have any wrecks. But most likely if we do, it’ll be a big wreck because everyone is going to be so tight together.”

Chitwood is devoting his attention to winning back fans who may have been turned off by last year’s debacle or simply cut back in the struggling economy.

He said the track has received positive feedback on two changes: allowing fans to bring much bigger coolers into the track, as well as scrapping the requirement that any backpacks be made of clear plastic. Also, 26 hotels signed up for a program that allowed fans to receive 30 percent off if they booked in November, 20 percent off in December.

“We just need to keep hitting the right chord with our fans,” Chitwood said. “Doing things they appreciate shows them we understand the challenges of attending live sporting events.”

Also, he wants to make sure the Daytona 500 is a must-see event on everyone’s sports calendar, from the die-hard fan to someone who only watches one race a year.

Mostly, he wants to celebrate the track’s rich history — and, yes, even the infamous pothole. Chitwood has saved the concrete chunk used to patch it up and plans to put it on display at Daytona.

“We have a story to tell,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of telling that story, telling fans about our history so they appreciate it. Hopefully, then, it is something they will share with their friends.”

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