Dale Earnhardt Jr during driver introductions prior to the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona, Florida. Photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | License Photo
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Though he was sidelined for the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained intimately involved in the conduct of NASCAR racing, figuring prominently in discussions that led to significant innovations in the race structure and points system for 2017.
Races in NASCAR's top three touring series will feature three stages in each, with opportunities to earn both championship and playoff points at the end of each stage -- with the final stage being the end of the race.
Conceivably, a driver who excels in the first two stages could earn more than the eventual race winner, but Earnhardt doesn't see that as a problem.
"I'm fine with it," Earnhardt told the NASCAR Wire Service, "because I think it's a nice reward in the middle part of the race. You can have a guy go out there and he leads 75 percent of the event and finishes last and gets one point (under last year's format), and it's not indicative really of how strong he was in that event.
"So I think this is a subtle way to reward who is competitive and running well in the meat of the race. If a guy goes out there and does really well and gains 45, 50 points and doesn't win the race, you're not going to hear complaints from the guy standing in Victory Lane. He's going to be holding the trophy."
And with that trophy comes an all-but-guaranteed spot in the playoff.
What Earnhardt particularly likes about the revamped format for 2017 is the sense of urgency that will permeate an event from start to finish.
"Now everything matters, everything in the middle," Earnhardt said. "It gives the racing substance that I thought was missing from a driving standpoint. So I'm really excited about it. ... A lot of things we do bring fan interest only or driver interest only, and I think this does both."
KURT BUSCH EAGER TO REKINDLE FORD RELATIONSHIP
Competing for Roush Fenway Racing in 2004, Kurt Busch was the last driver to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in a Ford.
Since leaving Roush at the end of the 2005 season, Busch has driven Dodges for Roger Penske and Chevrolets for James Finch, Furniture Row and Stewart-Haas Racing.
With Stewart-Haas moving to Ford this season, Busch will have a chance to renew old acquaintances.
"It is a special homecoming feeling to head back to work with Ford and to have them with our power and our bodies at Stewart-Haas Racing," Busch said on Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "It really feels neat to come back to a place where I've seen the faces before and the way that the structure has been polished up on and the way that there's more depth with Ford Performance.
"(Ford Board Member) Edsel (Ford) has done an incredible job over the last decade to continue to improve. Guys like Raj Nair (executive vice president, product development and chief technical officer) Dave Pericak (head of Ford Performance), the whole gang is ready and willing to help in all areas and directions. It's like they just opened up a whole new book of things to look at and to advance our program further."
DANICA PATRICK ALSO OPTIMISTIC ABOUT MANUFACTURER SWITCH
Like Kurt Busch, teammate Danica Patrick is optimistic about the benefits that could accompany the switch to Ford.
In each of the last two years, Patrick has finished 24th in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, a career-best. The 2017 season will be her second with crew chief Billy Scott.
"Hopefully, there's more room to improve now, so that's kind of exciting to me," Patrick said. "I'm optimistic, and hopeful it will be something that makes a difference. I think if you're in the top 15 every weekend, then you do a little bit better and then you're in the top 10 and then once you're in the top 10 with good pit stops, good strategy and all the things that play into it -- some of the new formats for the races can play into segment wins.
"I think it's important to be realistic, so to tell you to go out and win races and segments is not something I necessarily think is going to happen right away, but we'll assess. We'll assess how strong we are as a team. A few years back we were really strong (with three top 10s in 2014), and I felt like that's where I was running by the end of the year, was up in the top 15 and getting into the top 10, so hopefully we can get back to that and work from there."
TRUEX SAYS EDWARDS' DEPARTURE WILL CHANGE TOYOTA DYNAMIC
Martin Truex Jr. was as surprised as everyone else when he heard Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards had decided to step away from racing.
As part of the Toyota factory effort, which also includes the Furniture Row Racing team, Truex valued Edwards' contribution to the body of knowledge. Understandably, that will change when rookie Daniel Suarez takes over the seat of Edwards' No. 19 Camry.
"I always thought Carl would be like Mark Martin and race till he's 50 or so," Truex said. "It's definitely going to change the dynamic, taking away one veteran guy who's been around a long time, has had a lot of success and really had a lot to bring to the group and the discussions we had.
"It's definitely going to be a little bit different, but I'm excited about it. There's a lot of talent still in that group, and hopefully we'll be able to pull it together and make it happen again."
Suarez isn't the only rookie to join the Toyota team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Furniture Row has expanded from a single-car operation to a two-car team, and 20-year-old Erik Jones joins FRR as Truex's teammate for 2017.
NOTE: Suarez's promotion to the Cup series brings with it a spotter change at Joe Gibbs Racing. Chris "Crazy" Osborne, who worked with Suarez during his run to the NASCAR XFINITY Series title, moves from Matt Kenseth's Cup car to the No. 19. Edwards' former spotter, Jason Hedlesky, will now fill that role for Kenseth.