With rule changes in 2011 bringing a championship battle that went down to the last lap, there's no reason for NASCAR to tinker with things too much this year.
That was the message from its chairman Brian France in his state of the union address at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Thursday, where he insisted that 2012 will all be about building on the success of last season.
"Our focus for 2012 is continuing that momentum," he said. "We'll continue on the same path in terms of points, the championship format and the rules packages, all of which were very successful last year."
"The sport is in a very good place right now, no question about that, and we're working hard and even harder to achieve the very best things for the sport of NASCAR well into the future. We expect to have another highly competitive battle for the championship this year with our biggest stars and many new faces in the mix, and as you heard, aligned with some new teams."
NASCAR changed the rules before 2011 to institute a simpler points system and changed the way the final two championship contenders get into the 10-race playoff style Chase for the Cup that decides the season title.
The last Chase stop at the Miami-Homestead Speedway saw fans glued to their televisions as Tony Stewart clinched his third Sprint Cup title. A tie-breaker was needed to award the title, which went to Stewart on the basis of his five wins after he finished the 10-race playoff deadlocked in points with Carl Edwards.
If a compelling, down-to-the-wire Chase battle to end the season on a weren't enough good news, NASCAR also gained two huge assets over the winter in IndyCar top draw Danica Patrick and X-Games superstar Travis Pastrana.
Former Andretti Autosport driver Patrick brings her tremendous appeal to stock cars as she races in the second tier Nationwide Series full-time for JR Motorsport as well as peppering a few Cup races into her schedule with Tony Stewart's team. Her first Cup race in 2012 is the Daytona 500 next month. Patrick was easily IndyCar's most valuable player for the past seven seasons, drawing fans to a series that continues to struggle to attract attention. There's no doubt that she will help NASCAR keep the momentum going.
Pastrana was supposed to make his Nationwide debut last July, but that was put on hold when he snapped his ankle in a motorcycle accident a couple of days before his maiden start. His original plan was to run a handful of Nationwide races last year and then about 20 in 2012 before racing full-time a year later. Now, he will compete full-time in the K&N Pro Series East this season and add some Nationwide races to the mix with his Pastrana Waltrip Racing outfit. Like Patrick, he is golden with the key 18-35 crowd that NASCAR and its sponsors hope to attract in bigger numbers.
While the status quo is good for most things, one area NASCAR will try to change is the boredom cause by the tandem running during restrictor plate races at the superspeedways in Daytona and Talladega. At those races, drivers pair up and run nose-to-tail with one pushing the other to gain extra speed. When the car behind starts heating up due to the reduced airflow, they swap places. Instead, NASCAR would like those venues to see a return to the pack racing that fans said they like better.
"We've had a breathtaking number of close finishes at those tracks, but the fans want a mixture of styles, including a return to that more traditional, more pack racing and that close side-by-side competition that's unique to Daytona and Talladega," France said.
"We've made clear we're working hard to find rules packages that break up the tandem racing at Daytona and Talladega and return it to a more traditional style of racing on those superspeedways."
The series already held a test at Daytona earlier this month where it tried out several different packages to help reduce the amount of tandem drafting. In the end, it decided on a bigger restrictor plate, a smaller spoiler, and softer springs. The bottom of the rear bumper will be five centimetres lower this year.
NASCAR also raised the radiator on the front of the car which will likely cause them to heat up quicker and discourage tandem running.
"The changes we made in the cooling system and the aero package, we believe, will aid in getting back to the more traditional style pack drafting that we've come to expect at Daytona and Talladega," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition.
"We're also implementing some of the similar adjustments to the Nationwide and the Camping World Truck Series."
The other big change is in the under the hood where electronic fuel injection will finally be bolted to a NASCAR engine, although only in the top tier Sprint Cup Series as Nationwide and the Craftsman Truck Series will have to wait.
"We've talked today and will continue to talk about our move to electronic fuel injection because it's the next important step in making the cars and the track more like the production cars the fans drive every day — it also helps us with smart technology at just the right time," France said.
"Fuel injection is no small thing to introduce, although we've been working on it for a couple years. But the format, the wildcard, the points, simplification of that, the feedback on that from our fans, the media and others, all of that was right on point. So we're pretty pleased with where things are in general."
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