The day is here: glorious, high-speed American stock-car racing is back for a new season. But that new season comes with a lot of changes, from a major rules overhaul to alarming driver swaps over the offseason. Let’s get you caught up on everything you need to know before the Daytona 500.
Here’s a quick rundown of stuff that happened over the offseason, and you can find all of the technical aspects you need to know about the Daytona 500 and upcoming NASCAR season right here.
- NASCAR’s top tier has a new title sponsor: After more than 10 years of title sponsorship from Nextel and then Sprint, the company’s sponsorship deal ended at the end of 2016. The new sponsor was unknown until December, and then the series’ name was a mystery for a few weeks while the NASCAR and the new sponsor debated what to call it. Monster Energy took the title sponsorship over for what ESPN reported to be less than half of the amount Sprint was paying, and the series became the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The first in-race Cup Series wreck of the season was, oddly, the Monster Energy car.
- New rules, new championship formats: All three of NASCAR’s national divisions, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series, got a major rules overhaul during the most recent offseason. The points are complicated and the repairs will be quick in 2017, and you can read a full rundown of the rules right here.
- The races will have stages: In those new rules, NASCAR mandated that every race in all three of its top divisions will be broken into three stages. That includes the Daytona 500. Points will be awarded to winners and top finishers of each of those stages, and NASCAR introduced a new green-and-white checkered flag to end the first two stages. The regular checkered flag will still end the races. Stage lengths for the entire 2017 season can be found here.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns from missing a huge chunk of the 2016 season due to concussions: After a wreck at Michigan International Speedway in 2016, Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed a huge portion of the race season due to a concussion. The Daytona 500 will be Earnhardt’s first regular-season race back since he took off for the concussion last year, and he starts on the outside pole. With Earnhardt’s full support, NASCAR also beefed up its concussion protocol for the 2017 season.
- Carl Edwards unexpectedly retires from Cup Series racing, Daniel Suarez takes his ride: Out of nowhere, Joe Gibbs Racing driver and a favorite for the 2016 Cup Series title, Carl Edwards, announced his retirement over the offseason. He didn’t give much of a reason, and he certainly didn’t give much warning—the retirement was so random that NASCAR allowed JGR a substitute driver for the Advance Auto Parts Clash last weekend in Edwards’ place. Since the Clash has special driver qualifications and JGR was already in the final stages of preparation for it when Edwards retired, NASCAR had to give JGR a pass and allow a driver who didn’t qualify to race it for him. That driver was NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez, who will race Edwards’ former No. 19 car full time for the 2017 season. Edwards hinted at concussions as a reason for his unexpected retirement.
- Tony Stewart expectedly retires from Cup Series racing, Clint Bowyer takes over the No. 14 car: Tony Stewart’s final Cup Series season was 2016, and Clint Bowyer, who had drama of his own with the teams he raced for prior to taking Stewart’s spot at Stewart-Haas Racing, will drive the No. 14 car for the 2017 season. Stewart-Haas Racing also switched from Chevrolet to Ford over the offseason.
- The champions from 2016, in case you forgot: Jimmie Johnson took his seventh-career Cup Series title in 2016, tying him with both Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty in the ranks of seven all-time championships. In the Xfinity Series, Mexico’s Daniel Suarez became NASCAR’s first foreign-born champion in a national series. Johnny Sauter won the Camping World Truck Series title.
Enjoy the race. Here’s hoping that you understand it a bit more now.