DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
The Daytona 500 turns 59 on Sunday, just one year shy of a solid, round milestone number. But the otherwise ordinary anniversary has a momentous wrinkle thrown in.
For the first time in its history, the “Great American Race” will be run in three stages — 60, 60 and 80 laps — with points incentives to the top finishers in each segment. It’s an infusion of a new-school format, transposed against the backdrop of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series‘ most prestigious event.
The significance isn’t lost on the 40 drivers who will take the flag in Sunday’s 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and neither is the bounty of bonus points that will be available. It’s a tantalizing carrot, one that could alter teams’ approaches as each race plays out this season.
“I think that’s the biggest thing — it’s going to change the strategy,” said Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner. “I think there is going to be a lot of strategy involved. Late cautions in (stages) or the timing of the (stages) … if there is an early caution … do you stay out and gain the points and pit later? There’s going to be a lot of strategy that will mix the field up more than we’ve seen in the past. …
“There’s really no time to relax and I think that’s going to create a bit more of a chaotic atmosphere for the fact that there is so much to get and if you don’t aggressively go out and try and get those things, you’re going to get behind really fast.”
The lure for drivers at the end of the first two stages are regular-season points awarded to the top 10, plus a bonus point for a stage winner to carry into the playoffs. That format will be in place for all 36 points-paying races through the season.
The scoring system is no different for the other 35 events, but Sunday’s opener has the weight of the Harley J. Earl Trophy and a career-changing victory at the end of the third stage.
“I’d love to get those points, obviously, at the end of each stage, but I do feel like there’s going to be people that wreck at the end of the stages,” said Austin Dillon, who won the Daytona 500 pole position in 2014. “So, I don’t know.
If I’m running in the top three and I keep in my position, I probably won’t pull out of it.”
While on-track discretion will remain in play, the format may have an unintended effect on restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and sister track Talladega in potentially discouraging the play-it-safe tactic of laying back of the main pack.
“For me as a driver, nothing changes because I’m as wide-open as I can be,” Logano said. “I don’t have a slower gear. It’s high speed all the time and I’m gonna try to pass everyone every time I can, so that part doesn’t change for me.”