Daytonas different feel gives the Great American Race added intrigue

With a new format that breaks the Great American Race into stages, strategies are changing around the garage

John David Mercer—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (2) leads the pack out of turn four during the Clash at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway.

Imagine if the NFL played the Super Bowl in August. That’s essentially what NASCAR does in February, kicking off the season with the sport’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500. NASCAR has the Chase to crown a champion, but the weight and importance of Daytona on the calendar can’t be overstated.It isn’t just a celebration of NASCAR’s season starting, it is arguably the most important race of the year.”The Daytona 500 is probably the single biggest race we look forward to every year,” Austin Dillon said. “When you drive into the place for the first time you’re just excited. You can feel the energy throughout the week and history is made every time we come here.”NASCAR is making the event even more unique than before, gambling with the Great American Race in 2017 by rolling out a new race format under the brightest of lights. Daytona 500 will be the first true test, not just for the drivers, but for pit crews, race officials and every crew member in the garage.Earlier this offseason, the sport wiped away nearly all of recent changes and implemented an entirely new system for every single race and the playoffs. Each race will now be in three stages, designed to reward drivers who are inside the top 10 at each stage by rewarding them with points at the end of each stage.For the Daytona 500, the first stage will end after 60 laps while the second stage will end after Lap 120. The final stage will be 80 laps to form the full 200 laps (and 500 miles). During those breaks, the caution flag will fly and give drivers an opportunity to pit or stay out to gain positions.”There’s really no time to relax and I think that’s going to create a bit more of a chaotic atmosphere,” Kevin Harvick said of the changes. “There is so much to get and if you don’t aggressively go out and try and get those [points] you’re going to get behind really fast.”One aspect exclusive to superspeedway events is back-of-the-pack racing. While drivers at short or intermediate style tracks will typically look to stay out front in clean air, avoiding the “Big One” is sometimes more important at Daytona or Talladega prior to the end of the race.Just take Dale Earnhardt’s final win at Talladega, for example. Sitting in 15th place during the final restart with 15 laps to go, Earnhardt used a draft with Kenny Wallace to storm to the front. Sure, it wasn’t the rear of the field, but anything is possible when you avoid a massive pileup.Ryan Newman, who has typically hung out in the back of the field at Daytona, said the format update changes how he’ll approach Sunday’s race.”I won’t be in a position to give up stage points, but I’ll be in a position to race the way I need to race to get myself the best opportunity in each stage, and obviously the finally stage,” Newman said. “We could drop the green flag for the Daytona 500 and have a ‘Big One’ going into turn three. That will change every stage, and how you approach every segment.”The new format will possibly change the line of thinking midway around the 60 and 120-lap marks. It might also change the way the race is broadcast and how fans will ultimately watch the 500-mile race.One thing it will not change, however, is the ultimate goal.In the NASCAR world, there is no greater achievement — outside of winning a championship — than driving into Victory Lane in Daytona. Hoisting the Harley J. Earl Trophy puts a driver in an exclusive group featuring only 10 active drivers.”It’s literally impossible to describe what that feeling is like to anyone who hasn’t done it,” 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray said. “The feeling of coming off Turn 4 and seeing nobody in front of you and the checkered flag waving is what we live our whole lives for as drivers. There is no bigger feeling in my entire career than realizing I won the Daytona 500.”Regardless of the changes this season, that’s still the ultimate goal on Sunday.”