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Daytona 500 Kicks Off Season of Change for NASCAR

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

While most sports wait until the end of the season for their main event, NASCAR gets the party started with its biggest race of the year.  The Daytona 500 is one of the most famous races in the world, and those who win at the hallowed track become legends.  Daytona is the first race of the Sprint Cup season, which finishes in November with the crowning of the points champion.  The race will occur this Sunday in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The Daytona 500 may be a grand tradition, but this year’s race comes at a time when NASCAR is changing in several ways.  These aren’t the first changes NASCAR has ever seen. The cars have evolved over time, and sponsors have changed the names of races and trophies.  But the changes occurring now mark a cultural shift that is occurring in the sport, and Daytona marks their introduction.

The biggest change will be the implementation of the new Chase format.  Previously, the Chase fielded 12 drivers, and the driver with the most points at the end of the season won the Sprint Cup.  But this year brings radical changes to that format.  Now, the Chase will consist of 16 drivers, but only a few advance with each race.  In the final race of the season, the remaining four drivers will compete head-to-head, with the best placing among the four claiming the championship.  This is a true playoff format unlike any in motorsports at this level.

Many drivers will be effected by this shift in competition, but all eyes will be on one particular person.  Jimmie Johnson has six Sprint Cup titles, putting him one behind the seven Winston Cups won by both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.  Petty and Earnhardt are iconic drivers who are worshiped by NASCAR faithful.  Johnson, while certainly popular, does not command the same respect from longtime NASCAR fans.  Should he tie, and perhaps later break the record for Cup titles, would older NASCAR fans be able to embrace him as a true legend.  If not, is Johnson popular enough in the mainstream to bring in new legions of fans to a sport that is hurting at the ticket gate.

There is also the question of who can challenge Johnson to win the Sprint Cup.  Throughout Johnson’s run of success, the next best driver has probably been Tony Stewart, who has 3 championships himself.  Before Johnson’s sixth title last year, Brad Keselowski claimed his first title, and has a younger driver could prove to be a foil.  The Busch brothers are also talented enough to win, if they don’t let off-track issues distract them as they have in the past.

Despite NASCAR’s issues with attendance, it still remains as one of the most popular sports in North America.  The Daytona 500 will no doubt reinforce that position.  But with looming changes on the way, it will be interesting to see if NASCAR can regain the momentum it saw in the early 2000′s.

On Thursday, Eli Gold joined Houston and Huber to discuss the Daytona 500 and NASCAR’s place in American sports.  He will call the race as he does every Sprint Cup contest throughout the season.

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