Report: NASCAR eyeing expanded Chase with eliminations, retooled points system

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NASCAR’s been hinting at changes for its top-tier Sprint Cup Series for some time, but a report tonight from Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer may have revealed just how big those changes could be.

In the report, Utter relays word from multiple sources that say NASCAR is looking at widening the current 12-driver field of its post-season Chase for the Sprint Cup to a total of 16 drivers.

Additionally, Utter writes that any driver who scores a win in the 26-race regular season would be “virtually” ensured of a spot in the Chase; should more than 16 different drivers win, the 16 with the most wins and highest in points would make the Chase.

But that’s not all, as according to Utter’s report, the Chase would then have a series of eliminations after the third, sixth, and ninth race in the 10-race stretch – each elimination taking out the four lowest Chase competitors in points – to create a four-driver battle for the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Those four drivers would then be reset with the same amount of points, and the one who earned the most points at Homestead would win the Sprint Cup.

The sanctioning body has responded to the report in a statement from its chief communications officer, Brett Jewkes:

NASCAR has begun the process of briefing key industry stakeholders on potential concepts to evolve its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship format. This dialogue is the final phase of a multi-year process that has included the review of extensive fan research, partner and industry feedback and other data-driven insights. NASCAR has no plans to comment further until the stakeholder discussions are complete. We hope to announce any potential changes for the 2014 season to our media and fans very soon.

Utter’s report stresses that the proposed format could be changed before an official announcement takes place. That has been expected to happen later this month.

Over the last couple of months, NASCAR CEO Brian France has put fans and media alike on alert for possible tweaks to the current points system that would create more emphasis on winning races rather than maintaining consistency.

“…Do I think we have it perfect in terms of the right incentives to win? I don’t think we do,” he said in December during Champions Week in Las Vegas. “I think we can do – I’m not willing to say exactly what it’ll be, but I think we can do a little bit better. But I saw some things that I thought, hey, not that they weren’t trying to win, but that maybe the risk might have outweighed that, and we’ll be looking at that.”

France repeated this stance during an interview earlier this month on Motor Racing Network’s NASCAR Live radio show.

“We are not satisfied that we have the exact balance we want with winning, consistency, points, running for a championship,” he said to MRN. “We think we can make some tweaks to continue to incentivize risk taking and racing harder and so on. I made some remarks about that in Las Vegas and we’ll undoubtedly be coming with some things that put the incentive on winning races and putting things at the highest level.”

Mercedes continuing to explore Formula E, October deadline on entry

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GENEVA, Switzerland – Mercedes has until October to make a final decision on entering the FIA Formula E championship and activating its option for a place on the grid in season five, when it would have to be a customer team.

Mercedes announced last October that it had secured an option on a place in Formula E from season five, becoming the latest manufacturer to express its serious interest in the all-electric series.

No updates have been forthcoming from Mercedes regarding its Formula E interest since then, although a number of personnel are understood to have attended the recent Berlin race as it continues to evaluate the series.

When asked by NBC Sports about Mercedes’ Formula E plans at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week, head of Mercedes-Benz motorsport Toto Wolff confirmed that an evaluation was still ongoing ahead of an October deadline to trigger its option.

“We are exploring Formula E at the moment and try to form an educated opinion,” Wolff said.

“It is something that is very different, although I think they’ve done a great job in establishing the series in a couple of years only.

“We are in a fact-finding moment and we will make up our mind until October.”

Mercedes missed the deadline to join Formula E in season five (2018/19) as a manufacturer, with nine companies being listed by the series back in March.

Should Mercedes want to enter Formula E in season five, it would have to do so as a customer team, enjoying a powertrain supply from another manufacturer.

“The rules are what they are. If we decide to enter Formula E, we will be a customer team in season five,” Wolff said.

“There’d be no other solution.”

Verstappen quickest in opening Azerbaijan GP practice

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Max Verstappen led Red Bull Racing to a one-two finish in the opening Formula 1 practice session ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, finishing half a second clear of teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the top of the FP1 standings.

Verstappen and Ricciardo were able to make the most of low grip conditions at the Baku City Circuit through first practice, with a number of their rivals finding things more difficult and struggling to keep their cars on-track.

Verstappen recorded a fastest lap time of 1:44.410 in the Red Bull RB13 to take P1 overall, finishing four-tenths of a second clear of Ricciardo.

Sebastian Vettel took third place for Ferrari, half a second down on Verstappen at the front after squeezing a late lap in before a red flag stoppage in the closing stages of the session.

FP1 was halted when Sergio Perez became the first driver to crash at the tight Turn 8 section, carrying too much speed into the corner and clouting the barrier with his Force India car.

Despite the shunt, Perez ended the session fourth ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who failed to challenge the front-runners at the head of the field, finishing over a second behind Verstappen.

Valtteri Bottas was sixth in the second Mercedes ahead of Esteban Ocon and Felipe Massa, with Kimi Raikkonen and Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

Second practice in Baku begins at 9am ET live on the NBC Sports app before being re-aired on NBCSN at 2pm ET.

Road America weekend, Thursday notes

Brett Hundley with Will Power and Mario Andretti. Photo: IndyCar
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It’s a busy day of testing, practice and qualifying for all the series not named the Verizon IndyCar Series on Thursday at the KOHLER Grand Prix weekend.

IndyCar sessions begin on Friday and as such there wasn’t meant to be as much to report on that end… until late Thursday afternoon when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports confirmed Mikhail Aleshin’s temporary absence and Robert Wickens to fill in.

Meanwhile with Esteban Gutierrez having been confirmed for the rest of the season at Dale Coyne Racing, it’s anticipated he will have his first oval test next week at Iowa Speedway, to have his first running on an oval ahead of the July 9 Iowa Corn 300.

Here’s a couple other IndyCar notes…

DIXON’S SURPRISE TO A YOUNG FAN

Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network reporter Jake Query, who will also be hosting this weekend’s Indy Lights coverage from Road America on NBCSN, found a fan letter from a young girl named Lucy addressed to INDYCAR after Scott Dixon’s wild ride at the Indianapolis 500. Lucy proceeded to thank INDYCAR for its safety efforts in keeping Dixon intact.

Well, between the efforts of Query and the IndyCar PR staff, a meeting between the two was arranged. You can see the video of that, below.

PACKERS QB TAKES A RIDE WITH MARIO

Not that Packers QB though.

Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley had a ride today with Mario Andretti in Honda’s Fastest Seat in Sports, the two-seat IndyCar. He posted on it below.

Elsewhere, here is a bit more from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and Pirelli World Challenge ranks.

MRTI

  • First practice is in the books for USF2000 and rather than Oliver Askew being on top for Cape Motorsports, it was actually the Pabst Racing team that went 1-2-3 with Dutchman Rinus VeeKay ahead of Guyana driver Calvin Ming and Brazilian Lucas Kohl. Not bad for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Askew was fourth, and David Malukas was an impressive fifth. Full results are here.
  • In first qualifying for Pro Mazda, Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni took the pole with a best time of 2:06.5835, ahead of Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin at 2:07.9055. Team Pelfrey’s trio of Carlos Cunha, TJ Fischer and Nikita Lastochkin completed the top five. Full results are here.
  • Overall, the USF2000 field grows by one from the projected 18 up to 19 with F4 driver Jacob Loomis moving up to Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 Tatuus USF-17 Mazda, filling in for Ayla Agren. Agren’s full-season teammates Robert Megennis and Kaylen Frederick paid tribute to Agren, who is still here this weekend, with tribute cool shirts.
  • Meanwhile the Pro Mazda field dips by two. Neither Phillippe Denes, who was seventh in points heading into the weekend, nor Kevin Davis is here. It leaves the field at 15 cars, including series debutantes Kris Wright (who has tested with JDC Motorsports), Dave Zavelson and Kevin Bury. Zavelson’s car number switches from 4, listed initially, to 2.
  • Max Hanratty, who returns, has a new livery on his No. 6 ArmsUp Motorsports entry.
  • Anthony Martin is confident any issues with his Cape Motorsports Pro Mazda car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course have been sorted. The Australian proved that point by leading the opening practice session with a best time of 2:13.1661 in mixed conditions. Full times from that are linked here.
  • The reduced USF2000 field sees a couple drivers here who may be back later this year but others who may be done for the year. Agren, out at Team Pelfrey this weekend, is here and working towards a return later this season. Her past teammate at Pelfrey, Luke Gabin, is also here and is unsure whether he’ll be back in action for Exclusive Autosport.
  • Meanwhile Darren Keane, who makes his debut with Newman Wachs Racing in USF2000 this weekend, is expected to return to the team for remaining races. He’ll miss Iowa Speedway but plans to return at Mid-Ohio. Ozz Negri coaches Keane in USF2000; Tom Dyer, another Acura NSX GT3 driver, coaches the Pelfrey USF2000 drivers.

PWC

  • The PWC grid drops by a couple this week with a couple changes in the GT and GTA ranks. Bentley Team Absolute is down to one car with Yufeng Luo not here in his No. 78 Bentley Continental GT3, leaving only Adderly Fong. Fong, however, will miss the Mid-Ohio weekend owing to a schedule clash with the China GT Championship. Pablo Perez Companc, who was also due to race in GTA in the No. 69 Mercedes-AMG GT3, is another no-show this weekend.
  • K-PAX Racing has eclipsed the 100-podium plateau in recent rounds. The team’s three-car lineup resumes this weekend with Alvaro Parente, Bryan Sellers and Mike Hedlund, Parente and Hedlund having just returned from the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
  • Austin Versteeg makes his debut in the GTS class No. 13 ANSA Motorsports KTM X-BOW GT4, a car that’s won this season in the hands of Nico Jamin. Jamin is here this weekend in his Andretti Autosport Indy Lights car.
  • PWC had several test and practice sessions during the day.

Wickens set to substitute for Aleshin until further notice at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Robert Wickens will temporarily fill in for Mikhail Aleshin at this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team released a statement on Thursday afternoon confirming Aleshin’s absence for at least Friday owing to immigration issues, with that potentially set to stretch into the remainder of the weekend if the situation is not resolved.

The statement is below.

Hinchcliffe has also posted a tweet going into the weekend. The two participated in a ride-swap earlier this year where Wickens made his IndyCar test debut at Sebring (recap here) and Hinchcliffe ran in Wickens’ DTM car in Italy after the St. Petersburg opener (recap here).

The two drivers were teammates in A1 Grand Prix about a decade ago; Wickens has race experience at Road America as he finished seventh in a Formula Atlantic race in 2007. Hinchcliffe was 14th in the same race.

Beyond his DTM commitments, Wickens raced in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona with Starworks Motorsport, and ran 100 laps during the week in a PC class Oreca FLM09 he shared with a handful of others. Conor Daly and Sean Rayhall were among the notables in the other car.