Chase changes create excitement, competition
January 31, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said he doesn’t expect the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship format to result in changes to the schedule for the 10-race program.
The 2014 Chase will begin at Chicagoland Speedway and end once again at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with stops at New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix in between.
“We have those conversations (about the schedule) now,” France told NASCAR.com, after announcing a major overhaul of the 10-race format. “But we like consistency in our schedule, traditionally.
“And we also believe that the Homestead-Miami track, and the drivers will tell you this, it’s probably their favorite mile-and-a-half track to drive. It allows them to put on an unbelievable event, (there is a) lot of passing in that event.
“We’ll see in the future, but I’d be surprised if we moved (the site of the final race) around.”
While NASCAR is unveiling a new rules package to be used at intermediate tracks, and a new qualifying format this season, France said the time was right to make the changes to the Chase format.
The program, which debuted in 2004, has undergone minor changes in the past, but nothing like those that will be in play for 2014 and beyond.
The field of qualified drivers has been increased from 12 to 16; each of the three elimination-style rounds will trim the field by four teams, leaving four drivers to battle for the championship in the final event.
A re-setting of points through the rounds will mean that the teams that continue to advance will begin each round all square.
“We actually had a lot of discussion about changing too many different things,” said France. “But we are changing them in such a way that delivers on what the fans have told us they want. So the idea to wait on something that we could give them (now) … we just thought that wasn’t the right thing to do. We should give them what the future is now.”
NASCAR President Mike Helton said much of the feedback from individual teams centered on possible scenarios that could occur under the new format.
“And a lot of those scenarios exist today,” he said.
“We presented from a business side why we felt like this move was important to us and what it meant for the good of the sport across the board. That’s why it’s good to be out on the street with it; now we can start answering some of those questions.
“One thing we have learned – we can go through tens of thousands of scenarios and work through them, we know there’s one out there we haven’t thought of yet. We know that for certain.”
One concern voiced early was how NASCAR would react to an injury that resulted in a driver missing one or more races. One of the eligibility requirements is that a driver attempt to qualify for all 26 races leading up to the Chase. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin missed four races this past season as a result of an early-season injury.
Steve O’Donnell, senior vice president of racing operations for NASCAR, said the sanctioning body has a provision to deal with such a possibility, the EIRI (Except In Rare Instances) clause.
“An example would be you go to Atlanta and are in the top 30 (in points), and you’ve got five wins,” O’Donnell said. “You go out to Saturday’s practice, hit the wall and are diagnosed with a concussion.
“The neurologist says you’re out for Atlanta and you’re out for Richmond. We would make a determination at that point that based on the criteria if that driver was eligible we would make the call to keep them in. We’re not going to knock someone out just for missing a race when it’s based on a medical reason.”
Another eligibility requirement is that a driver be in the top-30 in points after 26 races.
“There is good competition throughout the garage and it keeps getting deeper,” said Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition and racing innovation. “I think 30 seemed to be a pretty good number for us when we looked at where people are that could win races. It’s deep enough in the field that we think that should cover everybody.”
Drivers that win a race or races deserve the opportunity to compete in the Chase, O’Donnell said, and how far they advance will depend on how competitive the team can be.
Officials aren’t concerned with a driver making the Chase, or winning the title, that isn’t seen as deserving based on how his team faired during the course of the year.
“If he qualified for the Chase and was able to beat the best other 15 drivers, he deserves to be the champion,” O’Donnell said.
“Tony Stewart, in the (2011) Chase, was ready to get out of the car at I think it was Chicago, said ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ and went on one of the best runs we’ve seen. I’ve never seen a fan question ‘Is Tony Stewart a legitimate champion?’ Yes he is and that’s what we see going forward.”
And, as Pemberton noted, “You’ve still got to beat the best of the best.
“There are 16 guys out there and they all have the same idea, and that’s getting to Homestead and winning the championship,” he said. “I don’t see anybody giving a thumbs down on anybody that makes the Chase through wins.”
Helton said the hope is that the new format will “create a lot of interest” among fans, “get people to watch it and decide what they think about it.
“And that’s a good start,” he said.
“But we believe it will create a level of excitement to continue to grow the sport. Not overnight, not instantaneously, not huge to start with, but it will grow the attention paid and give the sport a lift.”