NASCAR driver Jeff Burton isn't known for overstatement, so it's noteworthy when he says, "I've never been part of a season that's had this many changes at once." As the 2007 Nextel Cup season gets under way at the Daytona 500, America's premier auto series faces major twists and turns on and off the track. Here's your guide to the new season.
1) The Chase Gets an Overhaul
The Chase for the Championship has been significantly tweaked, placing a greater emphasis on winning races. Nextel Cup drivers now earn five extra points for each victory, and 12 cars — two more than in the past — can qualify for the postseason Chase, with their points then reset to 5,000. Chase drivers will then be seeded by getting a 10-point bonus for each win during the season.
2) Jimmie Wants Another Cup
After four years in the top five, longtime bridesmaid Jimmie Johnson finally got to the top of the Nextel Cup standings last season. Now he's trying to become the first back-to-back winner since teammate Jeff Gordon in 1997 and 1998. "There's less pressure, having won one," Johnson says, "but then the question never stops: [Can] you win a second one, or a third?" If he can maintain an edge when he's already on top, it'll be thanks in part to his highly intense crew chief, Chad Knaus. They've worked together for five years, and Knaus knows how to keep Johnson focused.
3) The Car of Tomorrow Is Here Today
The controversial auto-body redesign will be mandatory in 16 races this year, starting in March's bullring bash in Bristol, Tennessee. The "Car of Tomorrow" is intended to increase safety, thanks to a roomier driver compartment and energy-absorbing material built into the frame. But with its new rear wing and an adjustable front "splitter," teams are busy trying to figure out if it's also built for speed and proper aerodynamics. "We ran into thousands of obstacles with the car," Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. "I'm a little nervous about it. We're struggling a lot with the front end, trying to get the front of the car down on the ground."
4) There's a New "Rookie" Sensation
Juan Pablo Montoya, considered one of the world's best racers, traded in his prestigious ride in Europe's Formula 1 series for the yellow rookie stripe of NASCAR. The 31-year-old Colombian native brings skills, charm and star power to a sport desperate to gain new Latino fans, and his appeal on and off the track will be immediate. He's already made his mark at Daytona, winning last month's Rolex 24-hour race.
5) Here Comes Toyota
The Japanese automaker becomes the first foreign manufacturer in NASCAR's major league since 1954. Many of the sport's traditionalists blanched at Toyota's huge off-season spending spree to lure away established teams' personnel, but Toyota team owner and driver Michael Waltrip, pointing out that many Camrys are made in America, says, "[Those] who don't believe Toyotas oughta race are the ones who don't understand why the North won that war a long time ago."
6) ESPN Returns
Six years after losing NASCAR to NBC, the network synonymous with sports is back. ESPN/ABC's $270 million-per-year package includes the final 17 Nextel Cup races — with the 10 Chase for the Cup races airing on ABC — and all the second-tier Busch Series races. Every camera in both series will be hi-def, and staffers will listen in on each Cup driver's in-car chatter, searching for great on-air quotes. Aerosmith has rewritten one of its hits for pre-race programs, and, appropriately enough, it's called "Back in the Saddle."
7) Old Is the New Young
"It was a couple of years ago that everybody wanted to hire every 20-year-old out there, and it didn't matter if they'd done anything or not," says 50-year-old icon Dale Jarrett. The tide has turned as popular vets Ricky Rudd and Ward Burton return to full-time racing, while Mark Martin will ride part-time, serving as a mentor to younger drivers on the Bobby Ginn Racing team.
8) Earnhardt Family Drama Continues
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, has fallen into a war of words with team owner and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, who has questioned his commitment to winning. All the talk clouds Junior's hopes to sign a new contract with DEI, the company his late father built. Says four-time champ Jeff Gordon, "Dale can go anywhere he wants and his sponsors will go with him. I don't know if Teresa really recognizes that."
9) Parity Reigns
Better-funded teams across the board have led to more title challengers. Joe Gibbs, owner of his own NASCAR team — and head coach of the Washington Redskins — uses a familiar analogy: "[Look at] the NFL: Who would dream that you'd have 8-8 teams making the playoffs? Over here it's the same way."
10) Ratings Could Roar Back
Viewership stalled in 2006, but given the sport's skyrocketing growth over the previous five years, that felt less like a crash than a correction. "The Car of Tomorrow is going to impact ratings and attendance because it'll increase competition," predicts legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler, who adds that "we're probably due for a new superstar."
Fox presents The Daytona 500 on Sunday at 2 pm/ET.
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