THE NASCAR season is about to begin for 2017 with Daytona qualifying this weekend. Above, here is the start of the 2016 race.

THE NASCAR season is about to begin for 2017 with Daytona qualifying this weekend. Above, here is the start of the 2016 race.


NASCAR has a new sponsor, a new format and welcomes back its most popular driver, all providing optimism for a series eager to halt a steady decline in attendance, ratings and sponsorship.

Money is down across the board and everyone is doing more with less to try to save a buck.

The on-track product for the stock car series officially reports for work Friday at Daytona International Speedway, which hosts the Feb. 26 season-opening “Great American Race.” It will kick off a season of hold-your-breath, we-really hope-this-works efforts by NASCAR, the networks, tracks, teams and drivers to turn things around.

This season begins with Monster Energy roaring into its debut year as title sponsor amid promised marketing to millennials and the opportunity to lure new eyeballs to a sport with an aging audience. Part of the new razzle-dazzle approach is a wholesale redesign of the definition of a NASCAR race.

Remember how NASCAR just ran in circles for 500 miles nearly every Sunday for hours on end? Well, this year it’s about “enhanced competition” in segments broken up over three periods. Think of it like innings in baseball or quarters in football or basketball. More accurately, the quick first two segments are now the appetizer to the longer main event. In the meantime, you get to go grab a beer as the television networks promise to use the breaks between segments to dump all the commercials.

Even better, you won’t have to wait for Nationwide’s beloved “Water Cooler Dale” commercial to see NASCAR’s most popular driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is cleared for competition after missing the second half of last season with a concussion. Earnhardt’s sidelining absolutely cut into the audience, and had to send shivers down NASCAR’s spine over its dwindling cast of superstars.

Jeff Gordon is in the TV booth now, Tony Stewart is retired. They had seven championships between them and NASCAR is counting on Earnhardt to bring his fan base back to the track with him. How important is Earnhardt? Chicagoland Speedway, site of the Sept. 17 opening playoff race, has promised a full refund to anyone who buys a single-day ticket to that event between now and the Daytona 500 if Earnhardt wins for a third time.

But be prepared, Dale is different! He’s married, head-over-heels in love and you can double-click his Instagram account if you like photos of a man who has finally, in his 18th season, settled into his skin and found a peace that he is sharing with the entire world.

“Getting married has been incredible. I wish I would have figured this all out sooner,” he said. “I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts — personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people. And, obviously, in my professional life, she’s helped me as a driver.”

He wants a family, wants to be himself and wants to be in that race car.

Penalty system

NASCAR unveiled a revamped penalty system Thursday that could levy more punishments on race weekends.

Scrapping its six-level class, NASCAR moved to a two-level system where penalties assessed during qualifying or inspections at the track will be immediate and not handled later in the week.

Potential penalties at the track include loss of practice time, loss of pit selection, an end of field penalty and even the loss of track access.

NASCAR said Level 1 infractions that include failing weight, heights and missing three lugnuts will result in penalties of up to 40 points, a potential three-race suspension for a crew chief and a $75,000 fine. Level 2 infractions that target traction control, tire manipulation and illegal testing warrant a 75-point deduction, a six-race suspension for the crew chief or other team members, and a fine ranging from $ 100,000 to $200,000.

Safety penalties will be handled on case-by-case basis