By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
A new entitlement sponsor for the Cup Series, competition enhancements and the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the track are just a few of the major story lines heading into the Daytona 500. Motorsports Tribune spoke with Chicagoland Speedway President Scott Paddock to discuss his thoughts heading into Sunday’s Great American Race.
New Entitlement Sponsor
In January, Monster Energy became just the third company to serve as the entitlement sponsor in NASCAR premier series history, replacing Sprint.
“I think it’s exciting for the industry and for our fans,” Paddock said. “We were presented to by the VP of Marketing from Monster Energy a couple of weeks ago at the NASCAR Marketing Summit. It’s very clear that they know who they are as a brand and what their brand stands for and they make no apologies about it. They’re about racing, music and creating a party atmosphere. I think that what they’re going to do, in terms of what they’re bringing from a content standpoint, is really going to enhance the fan experience. They are going to bring the party to the racetrack every weekend.”
That party atmosphere will translate well to Champions Park, Chicagoland’s fan-interactive, park-like area right outside the grandstands.
“We had really an unprecedented level of corporate partner activation last year in Champions Park and I think you can expect to see that again this year. Certainly I think the Monster integration is going to transform the fan experience in and of itself so that’s huge alone.
The enhanced competition format divides races into three stages, awarding championship points to the top-10 finishers of the first two stages in addition to one playoff point to the winner of those two stages. The race winner will receive five playoff points and finishing in the top-10 in championship points at the end of the 26-race regular season will earn those drivers additional playoff points. The intent of the enhancements is to improve the quality and excitement of the racing product and reward drivers for performances throughout each race.
“I’m optimistic about the format changes and I think it’s going to create a greater sense of urgency throughout the race,” Paddock said. “I like the fact that how you race early in a race in April or May can have championship implications come November. I like the fact that it was an industry wide effort with collaboration from all of the industry stakeholders, including drivers, which led us down this path. I’m really excited about it.”
Return of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With the return of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to the track after missing the last 18 races of 2016, Paddock and his team knew there was no better time than the present to offer a ticket promotion centered on NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
“It’s actually something we did a couple of years ago with a lot of success and we thought it was appropriate, given the circumstances around Dale Jr. last year, to celebrate his return to Cup racing in 2017.”
The offer, dubbed “Winning with Dale,” will give fans that purchase a single-day NASCAR Cup Series ticket for the September 17th race at Chicagoland their money back if Earnhardt goes to victory lane in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Earnhardt has two Daytona 500 victories (2004 and 2014) on his resume and will start from the second position in the No. 88 Chevrolet in Sunday afternoon’s Great American Race. He led 53 of his 60 laps in his Can-Am Duel qualifying race on Thursday night before finishing sixth.
Paddock noted the ticket offer has a couple of different benefits for the track, given that both Chicagoland and Daytona are part of 13 facilities owned by International Speedway Corporation.
“I think this attractive offer will prompt some of our fans to purchase earlier. In our industry, and in sports and entertainment, the longer a consumer goes without purchasing a ticket; their circumstances may change, preventing them from purchasing a ticket. That’s true in baseball, football, a concert, a play. Schedules change. Things happen. Whatever you can do to purchase early is a good thing.
“In addition, all of the tracks, including ourselves, are really trying to promote tune-in messaging to drive fans and viewers to the Daytona 500. Any excitement and buzz we can generate leading into the 500 I think serves the whole industry well.”
Outlook for Chicagoland in 2017
The NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in July and the World of Outlaws at The Dirt Oval at 66 in June are two of the key events happening on the massive property in Joliet, Ill. before NASCAR and the ARCA Racing Series come to town for their four-race weekend in September.
“It’s a complete transformation that’s going on out there (at The Dirt Oval). The dirt and the infrastructure needed some work to make it suitable for competitive and not just exhibition racing. That’s well underway and I think it’s exciting. That facility has a lot of potential and that would be great to see that potential realized in the years ahead.
“It’s the 20th running this year of the NHRA Route 66 Nationals so we are going to bring back a number of our past champions throughout that 20 year history and celebrate it in grand style.”
And while it’s still over six months away, Paddock and his dedicated team can’t wait to host the opener to the premier series’ playoffs.
“It goes without saying we’re thrilled that for the seventh year in a row we’ve been tapped to host the kickoff to NASCAR’s playoffs. That’s a huge honor for us.
“The beauty of sports is the unpredictable nature of it. I’m anxious to see what story lines are going to bubble up in the days coming out of Daytona and throughout the season.”