No shocking changes on tap for '05
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After a year filled with change, the 2005 season in NASCAR's top stock car series will have a familiar feel.
There was plenty of skepticism -- and even some outrage from fans -- when new chairman Brian France changed the points structure last year and ushered in a playoff-style system. But it worked nearly to perfection, meaning there will be less upheaval this year.
The first 26 races kept fan interest at an all-time high and put drivers and teams on edge like never before in midseason. Then the 10-race Chase for the championship went down to the final lap of the season, with Kurt Busch hanging on to beat Jimmie Johnson by eight points and Jeff Gordon by 16 in the closest finish in the sport's history.
Other than the anger of traditionalists, who don't like any change, the biggest gripe from fans and teams was that only 10 drivers made it into the playoff. The rules allow any driver within 400 points of the leader to be included, but 11th-place Jamie McMurray missed that mark by 15 points, prompting critics to say it should be changed to 450 or 500 points.
"If it isn't broke, I don't think we have to fix it,'' France said. "We're always looking at everything we do to see if it can be made better somehow, but there's no need to change anything in the Chase right now.''
The new system is not the only thing firmly established as this season opens.
By now, everyone is used to calling it the Nextel Cup series, and France has settled in after his first full season as chairman and CEO.
"I don't think there are going to be a lot more surprises this year,'' said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "Hardly anybody slips and calls it Winston Cup any more, and we all know now what the Chase is all about.''
But France is not one to stand completely still. There will be a few changes in 2005.
Rear spoilers have been lowered and softer tires will be used at intermediate tracks such as Las Vegas, California, Atlanta and Charlotte this year. The rule changes are intended to put more control back into the hands of drivers by taking away downforce and making the cars harder to drive.
There was near panic by some teams about the changes and how they would affect racing. Most of that subsided after preseason tests two weeks ago at Las Vegas and California.
Rusty Wallace, a proponent of the spoiler and tire changes for several years, was a little disappointed.
"I really didn't feel a whole lot of difference,'' Wallace said. "We'll probably feel it a lot more in racing with other cars than we did in testing, where we were mostly alone on the track.
"I still think it's going to make for better racing.''
NASCAR also has changed the qualifying procedure to assure well-sponsored teams that run at each of the 36 Cup races make the lineup.
Under the old system, with car owner points -- so-called provisionals -- determining only the last seven positions in the lineup, NASCAR and several top sponsors were embarrassed to have guests show up at races where their car had not made the field.
Beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, the top 35 teams in car owner points will be guaranteed starting spots in the lineup, with the rest of the 43-car field filled from qualifying speeds.
In another change, at tracks where Friday qualifying is not considered a big draw, time trials will be moved to Saturday and the cars will be impounded by NASCAR immediately after making their qualifying run. They will have to start the race on the same tires and with the same fuel load with which they qualified.
"Hopefully, that will be a good thing for the teams,'' France said. "It will mean they won't have to bring as many people to the track as early and that the crewmen will have some time off Saturday afternoon instead of staying at the track to make wholesale changes to the cars.''
It also means some top teams may put less emphasis on qualifying and more on putting the cars into racing trim in pre-qualifying practice.
"Starting position will still be important for getting good pit positions and trying to stay out of trouble early in the race, but I think everybody is going to spend more time getting ready for the race and not putting so much time and effort into qualifying,'' Busch.
The favorites this season look very similar to those of last season. In fact, it wouldn't surprise anybody if the same 10 drivers who made it into the 2004 Chase are the guys to beat again.
Gordon is considered a serious favorite as he tries once more for a fifth season title, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Johnson, has proven to be a perennial contender but needs a championship to validate his role as a superstar.
Johnson finished fifth as a rookie in 2002 and has been the runner-up each of the last two seasons. He was dominant most of 2004, winning a series-high eight races, but came up just short in the Chase.
"We just have to keep doing what we're doing,'' Johnson said. "I think our team has shown it has what it needs to win a championship, we just have to put it all together and not make the kind of mistakes we've made in the past.''
Roush Racing has come up with the championship the past two years, with Matt Kenseth and Busch, and those two, as well as teammate Mark Martin, are expected to contend in 2005, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., former champion Tony Stewart, Jeremy Mayfield, Elliott Sadler and Ryan Newman.
Kasey Kahne, last year's top rookie, could jump into the contender class this season, along with McMurray, veterans Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Joe Nemechek.
Fan favorite Earnhardt finished fifth in the Chase after being a contender all season. DEI, the team started by his late father, went through an offseason shake-up, with Junior and non-contending teammate Michael Waltrip swapping cars and crews.
"It ain't going to be a problem,'' Little E said. "Everybody is getting along, we've got great cars and I don't think we're going to miss a beat.''
The sentimental favorite for the title in 2005 will be Martin, a four-time series runner-up and last year's fourth-place finisher. He, along with former champion Wallace, will be driving their final full Cup seasons.
"As much as I'd love to win another championship, I would be thrilled -- just like everybody else -- to see Mark win the championship he has deserved all these years,'' Busch said. "And I think he's got a real shot at it.''
Two-time champion Terry Labonte will begin phasing out his career, cutting his schedule to 10 races this year and in 2006. Much-heralded 19-year-old rookie Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, will step into Labonte's full-time ride.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press