France: Dale Jr. 'determined' to make Chase
February 26, 2014, Staff report, NASCAR.com
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France told SiriusXM NASCAR's Tradin' Paint on Monday that the sanctioning body was "thrilled that we got off to a good start" after a competitive Daytona Speedweeks.
"Our fans were the big winners (Sunday) night," France said. "I'm thankful we got everything in and things played out the way that they did."
After a six-plus hour rain delay, NASCAR Air Titan technology allowed drivers to get back on track and complete the Daytona 500. France said, "When we resumed, the racing got a lot harder for everybody."
With a new playoff format rewarding winning in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, new standards for racing were set at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR Loop Data showed new track bests for green flag passes (11,977) and green flag passes for the lead (177). The old marks were 9,574 and 170, respectively.
"Our greatest moments (have been) by drivers who did what they needed to do to win races," France said. "Our job is to provide a rules package and format that incentivizes that, to bring that out."
"That was two-, three-wide the entire way. For Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) to have mixed it up -- there were a lot of lead changes late in that race -- to win against probably the top 10 or 15 guys in the business, that was about as determined an effort as I've seen. Unbelievable on his part."
France compared Earnhardt Jr.'s efforts to Tony Stewart's 2011 Chase. In the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart beat Carl Edwards for his third Sprint Cup title.
Stewart "just refused to lose that championship," France said. "Had to win the race to win it all, and he did. Went from last to first. That's still one of the great performances I've ever seen, but (Earnhardt Jr.'s performance in the Daytona 500) was very close to that."
The new NASCAR Chase Grid rewards 16 race winners in the first 26 events who are also in the top 30 in points with a berth in the playoffs. France said the new format ratcheted up the intensity in the season-opening race.
Earnhardt "had more determination than anybody else on that night," France said of NASCAR's 11-time Most Popular Driver who claimed his second Great American Race win and likely a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. "He gets to let it loose. He can go after wins ... He can go be aggressive as he wants. That's a cool thing for our fans."
"We expect contact, especially on short tracks or all over the place when it's late in the race and you have a faster car, we expect for drivers to do what it takes to win races and you saw that a lot," France said. "This win-and-get-in is going to change the way people race."
And the competition isn't limited to race day. While rain shortened Coors Light Pole Qualifying in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and canceled Keystone Light Pole Qualifying in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, France looks forward to the new group qualifying format on the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend.
"It'll be on full display in Phoenix this weekend," France said. "It adds a whole other dimension. We really like it. I think the fans can appreciate that. It's just more action. All the cars are out there. You're trying to run the fastest lap. On the other hand, you've got to know that tires and strategy at different stages are going to determine (the pole-sitter)."
Close competition was the hallmark of the first weekend of points racing. In the Camping World Truck Series Nextera Energy Resources 250 on Friday, Kyle Busch beat Timothy Peters by .016 seconds, the eighth closest finish in series history and closest series finish at Daytona. In Saturday's Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300, the .013-second differential between winner Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski was the seventh closest finish in series history and second closest series finish at the World Center of Racing.