Ready to go racin’

Published 12:52 pm Sunday, February 13, 2011

It’s only been 12 weeks since the 2010 NASCAR season ended in Miami with Jimmie Johnson winning an incredible fifth championship in a row, but for this fan, it seems like 12 months.

All of that changes this weekend as the 2011 season kicks off with the Budweiser Shootout from Daytona on Saturday night.  This race is the precursor to the Duel qualifying races next Thursday and then the Daytona 500 next Sunday.

Much was made of the racing surface at Daytona during both the 500 and the July race last year. In a word, it was atrocious. That has changed with the installation of a brand spanking new, smooth-as-silk asphalt surface. The new track received rave reviews from drivers during a tire test at Daytona last month and some even predicted that this year’s Daytona 500 will be the best ever. I can’t wait to see if those predictions ring true.

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The Budweiser Shootout is a less-than-full field race in which drivers must qualify in order to participate. The eligibility standards have changed greatly through the years and it seems that NASCAR changes the rules in order to get the best drivers in the race.

This year, there are 24 drivers entered into the race and it will pretty much be a season-opening All Star race. There five ways for a driver to become eligible for this year’s race: the 12 drivers in last year’s Chase, past Sprint Cup champions who have competed within the last two years, past Budweiser Shootout champions, past Daytona points race winners, and any Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year from 2001-2010.

You pretty much have the top 24 drivers in this race because of the wide-ranging criteria. I guess the only drivers you wouldn’t consider to be in that group would be Derrike Cope, past Daytona 500 winner, Kevin Conway, 2010 Rookie of the Year, and Regan Smith, former Rookie of the Year.

At any rate, it should be a good show.

Going into the 2011 season, we have a new points system, a new way to determine the Chase participants and drivers with new teams.

The points system has been vastly simplified. Starting this year, the race winner will earn 43 points, based on 43 cars in the race, and a three-point bonus for winning. Points will be awarded in one-point increments, down to one point for finishing in 43rd place. Additionally, drivers leading a lap will earn one bonus point and the driver leading the most laps will earn an additional point.

This change has been well-received by the drivers and as the season progresses, I expect the fans to favor this system as well.

The 2011 Chase field will be comprised of the top-ten drivers in points and the last two positions will be filled by drivers not in the top-ten, but in the top 20, with the most race wins. Again, this is a welcomed change that will put more emphasis on winning races.

Welcome back, NASCAR racing. Looking forward to a great season.