New era for NASCAR begins Friday

Feb. 10, 2014 @ 11:59 PM

Friday will mark the official beginning of NASCAR’s new era.
That’s the day practice starts for Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, starting a new season that brings a radically new championship format in the Cup Series, a radically new qualifying format in the top three series, penalties for car rules infractions defined in writing for the first time, veteran drivers in new places and new drivers in new places.
So here’s a quick review of what to expect:
Cup championship format — changes emphasis from counting points (over a 26-race regular season and 10-race playoff since 2003) to automatically moving winners from the regular season to a 10-race playoff that starts with 16 drivers (with positions to be filled on points if there are not 16 winners). In the playoff, four will be eliminated by points every three races (with eligible winners in each round advancing to the next), leaving four to vie for the championship in the season finale at Homestead. The champion will be driver finishing the best among the four, creating the very real potential of the best driver over the course season not winning the championship.
Qualifying format — changes from single-car qualifying to a “knockout” style in which all cars can go on the track at the same time and take as many laps as needed in a session, with faster cars advancing and the pole winner decided in second session on some tracks or a third elimination session on others. depending on track size.
Veteran faces in new places — most notably Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch at Stewart-Hass Racing; and Ryan Newman replacing Jeff Burton at Richard Childress Racing after being let go at Stewart-Haas; and AJ Allmendinger replacing Bobby Labonte at Daugherty-TRG Racing.
New faces — Several as teams opt for new blood. Among them are Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing in the return of the iconic No. 3 for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s death, Kyle Larson replacing Juan Pablo Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing, Michael Annett in place of Dave Blaney in Tommy Baldwins’s No. 7, Justin Allgaier in the No. 51 team that Harry Scott purchased from James Finch; and Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex replacing veterans Travis Kvapil and David Ruetimann at BK Racing.
Also worth watching — Tony Stewart’s return from a severe leg injury that kept him out of the last four months of last season.
Friday’s practice for Cup cars is in preparation for Saturday night’s Unlimited race that features pole winners from last season. On the entry list are 18 drivers — 16 pole winners from 2013 and two former winners.
The pole winners are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselwoski, Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick. The former winners are Tony Stewart and Terry Labonte.
The defending champion is Harvick, who has won it three of the past five years.
Saturday at Daytona will bring the start of Daytona 500 practice and an ARCA race. Sunday is single-car qualifying that will determine the front-row starters for the 500.
Dave Blaney, who splits time between High Point and Concord now, got his season off on the right foot Sunday night by winning a sprint car race in Ocala, Fla.
Blaney led wire-to-wire in the 30-lap feature that was opener for the Illinois-based All Star Circuit of Champions after three rainouts. He dominated early and then narrowly won as mud covered his face shield.
“No one would have blamed the track (Bubba Raceway Park) a bit if they would have cancelled. All the rain we’ve had down here made it a mess. But the track guys kept working and working and working and got it where we could race,” Blaney was quoted on the racing circuit’s website. “Hey, someone had to win and I’m glad it was me. I knew I was in trouble there the last few laps. I was covered in mud and had run out of tear-offs and was coasting the last few laps. But we hung on. I’m excited to compete with the All Stars and World of Outlaws this week.”