At Daytona, we saw the "big one" a couple of times. This was no surprise to anyone who has watched the racing at Daytona in recent years. The type of racing that is the norm at the restrictor plate tracks leads to the possibility of multiple car wrecks, with cars running two and three wide in one or more packs.
If there was a track where most observers would say a huge, third-of-the-field wreck would not be expected, that track would be Phoenix International Raceway.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what we saw, and we saw it on lap 67 of a 312 lap race. Why are drivers being so aggressive so early in a race? It's easy enough to just dismiss this as hard racing, which is what top level drivers do. The question is, what, if anything, has changed to bring the level of aggressiveness even higher, and so early in races?
Could it be the points system? NASCAR implemented its new point system at the beginning of the year. The new system was meant to improve a number of perceived problems with the old points system. The new system is simpler, mathematically, since generally each position on the track counts for one point. It was also intended to reward winning more, which it does, marginally.
There is one other thing it does that has not been discussed much in the racing media: it punishes poor finishes, and it does so more than the old system did. Under the old system, the maximum points one could earn in a race was 195; the minimum was 34. That means that the worst one could do, by finishing 43rd, is to earn 17.4% of the points of the race winner.
Under the new system, the last-place finisher gets one point. The maximum that can be earned is 48 points. That means the driver that comes in 43rd can find himself receiving 2% of the points the winner gets.
This may be causing teams to be that much more afraid of a back-of-the-pack finish, and could be leading to strategies to avoid that, like trying to get up front as soon as possible.
The positive side of this is it would tend to discourage single-line racing throughout the field, because at most tracks, it takes some time to advance positions, so you should end up with a more exciting race. Obviously, the negative side is the possibility of a lot of wrecked race cars. It also means teams will have even more incentive get damaged cars back on track as soon as they can to salvage points, which could lead to even more wrecks. Case in point: we saw Andy Lally get into the wall Sunday in his noseless race car, bringing out a caution.
Now, this is just a theory, and it's very early in the season.
If we see a "big one" at Las Vegas early in the race, though, just keep this theory in mind as a possible explanation.