DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Drivers hardly needed another reason to win NASCAR’s Daytona 500 because it’s stock-car racing’s most prestigious race.
NASCAR gave them one anyway.
The 56th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday will be the first race under new rules that place more emphasis on drivers winning races and less on merely collecting points to reach NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup championship playoff in the fall.
The changes mean that if a driver wins one of the 26 regular-season races in the Sprint Cup Series, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500, he or she virtually is guaranteed a berth in the 10-race Chase.
The Daytona 500 “is huge but now it’s extra special,” said Greg Biffle, who finished ninth in last year’s Chase. “You win the Daytona 500 and you’re in the Chase. That’s a pretty incredible way to start the season.
“Same with all our other [regular-season] races,” said Biffle, who drives the No. 16 Ford prepared by Roush Fenway Racing. “If you win at Phoenix, [if] you win at Vegas you’re in the Chase.”
Phoenix and Las Vegas follow the Daytona 500.
The new Chase format also expanded the playoff to 16 drivers from 12, although the Chase races, like all Cup races, continue to have a field of 43 drivers overall.
The revised format also features elimination rounds during the playoff so that only four remaining Chase drivers have a chance to win the title at the season finale at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Every time we change something, it brings people’s eyes onto the sport,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the Daytona 500 a decade ago. “They’ll definitely be checking it out the first of the season.”
So a Chase berth will be on drivers’ minds from the moment the green flag falls Sunday for 200 laps around the high-banked, 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
Rookie Austin Dillon will lead the field after winning the pole for his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing. Dillon is driving a Chevrolet with the No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt’s late father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
But many of NASCAR’s biggest names will start at the back Sunday because they either had to change engines or switch to backup cars because of accidents in practice or qualifying.
Under NASCAR’s rules, the changes require that the drivers start at the back regardless of their qualifying speeds.
Those drivers include reigning Cup champion and defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, three-time champion Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr., whose qualifying speed was second to Dillon’s.
But Jack Roush, co-owner of Roush Fenway, said it was unlikely the drivers in back would quickly charge to the front and risk an accident early in the race.
Daytona is one of two tracks — Talladega, Ala., is the other — where NASCAR restricts the cars’ horsepower, which keeps the cars in closely bunched packs. As a result, a driver can move from the back to the front in less than 20 laps, so there’s no need to rush.
“I think the first 50 laps will be fairly quiet,” said Roush, whose other drivers are Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “The people that are starting in the back for the most part will be happy to live there for a third if not two-thirds of the race.”
After that, he added, “all bets are off.”
Still, driver Kyle Busch said that while the new Chase rules give drivers even more incentive to be aggressive in trying to win the Daytona 500 and its $1-million-plus first prize, there would be other chances after Sunday.
“It would certainly be nice to be the winner and to be . . . into the Chase right off the bat,” Busch said. “But it’s a long season. You’ve got 26 races to get it done.”