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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.”

Rosberg takes Belgian GP pole, Verstappen scores first front-row start

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo  on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will start the Belgian Grand Prix from pole position after dominating qualifying at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday afternoon.

With Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton dropping out in Q1 as a tactical move due to his grid penalty, Rosberg was left largely unchallenged in the battle for pole.

Red Bull and Ferrari showed glimmers of pace in practice, but when it came to qualifying, Rosberg was able to turn up the wick and continue Mercedes’ pole streak dating back to the Monaco Grand Prix.

Despite failing to improve with his final flying lap in Q3, a fastest time of 1:46.744 saw Rosberg take pole by 0.149 seconds ahead of Verstappen in P2.

Verstappen was the only driver to really push Rosberg, and although he was also unable to improve on his final effort, second place marked his best F1 qualifying result to date. He also becomes the youngest ever driver to start on the front row of the grid in F1.

Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen qualified third for Ferrari, edging out Sebastian Vettel in P4. Daniel Ricciardo was fifth in the second Red Bull, finishing over three-tenths off Verstappen’s pace.

Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg qualified sixth and seventh for Force India ahead of Valtteri Bottas in P8, while Jenson Button and Felipe Massa rounded out the top 10, finishing over a second off Rosberg’s pole time.

Haas enjoyed a somewhat routine qualifying as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both reached Q2 for the eighth race in a row. Grosjean qualified 11th with Gutierrez two places behind in 13th. Gutierrez will drop five places on the grid for blocking a driver in practice.

Kevin Magnussen led Renault’s charge in P12, while teammate Jolyon Palmer enjoyed his best qualifying of the year to finish 14th ahead of Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr.

Manor also produced a strong display in qualifying as Pascal Wehrlein reached Q2, finishing ninth in the opening session. The German ultimately finished 16th, with teammate Esteban Ocon finishing P18 in his first F1 qualifying outing.

The impact of Sauber’s car updates for Belgium were evident in Q1 as Felipe Nasr finished within one-tenth of a place in Q2. The Brazilian was left to settle for P17 on the grid, with teammate Marcus Ericsson in 20th. Daniil Kvyat’s ongoing struggles continued as he qualified 19th for Toro Rosso, finishing behind Ocon by 0.008 seconds.

With a 55-place grid penalty looming for a series of power unit changes, Mercedes opted to limit Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying program as much as possible. The Briton posted a time quick enough to qualify for the race, good enough for 21st place.

“This is the best strategic approach in order to maximize his opportunities from the back of the field tomorrow, in terms of new tire sets,” Mercedes confirmed.

Hamilton finished ahead only of Fernando Alonso, who was unable to post a time after coming to a stop at the top of Eau Rouge. The McLaren driver also has a sizeable grid penalty to take into Sunday’s race.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN from 7am ET on Sunday.

Simon Pagenaud: IndyCar’s one-day return to Texas is ‘weird’

Simon Pagenaud
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FORT WORTH – Yes, it’s absurd.

Simon Pagenaud is still answering questions about the Firestone 600.

That’s what happens when you start a race on June 12 (and meant to start June 11) and never finished it.

Throw in a few torrential downpours, a lack of communication between Texas Motor Speedway and IndyCar, and you have the series returning to Fort Worth, Texas, today. That’s 77 days later that the green flag will drop to finish the last 177 laps of the race.

Pagenaud, who will restart 15th, can’t do anything but laugh at the situation.

“It’s weird, the whole team is only showing up tomorrow and we’re going to have 10 minutes of practice and then race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “It’s going to be a short weekend. Obviously, it’s going to be a pretty short race. It’s going to be a sprint.”

MORE: McFadin column: At least IndyCar is coming back for this Firestone 600

The series completed 71 laps in June before the rain sent teams scrambling for cover in the garage and then away from TMS. They went on to compete in five races before today, with Pagenaud keeping hold of his points leads. That’s after his Team Penske teammate Will Power won three of those races and Pagenaud wrecked at Pocono.

And yes, the remaining 20 cars in the field will be given just 20 minutes to practice Saturday evening – 10 minutes for the front half of the field, 10 minutes for the back half.

After a 77 day red flag, you have to get down to business.

“I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage,” Pagenaud said. “We don’t have any time to change anything. They impound the cars pretty quickly after practice, so you don’t get to do anything on the cars. It’s really a driving exercise and nothing else.”

And they’ll be racing at night, with a scheduled green flag just after 8:15 p.m. ET. In June, teams practiced in the mid to late afternoon with the intent to race under the lights.

Then it rained. The green flag dropped well after 2 p.m. CT the next day. Now IndyCar will race in the conditions they originally intended – more or less.

“Because we didn’t practice to race at night, the behavior of the car is going to be different, but we have enough data from years past to know which way it’s going to go and how to balance the car. It’s definitely going to be a bit of a guess,” Pagenaud said. “The best engineer-driver combination should win the race. ”

Through 13 and half races this season, the best combination has been on Pagenaud’s No. 22 car. The Frenchman has four wins and seven poles. Entering 2016, he had only two poles in his previous five seasons.

At Texas, Pagenaud has only one top five (fourth, 2014).

Tonight, Pagenaud (should) get to finish his fifth Texas race and the points leader thinks the two month wait to finish the Firestone 600 will be worth it.

“We might have more edgy cars than during the day,” Pagenaud said. “It’s just something we’ve seen throughout the years. The track just changes when the sun goes down. I think it’s better for the fans. It’s a better show.”

After a record-setting intermission, the show must go on.

Perez: Sponsors yet to make decision on F1 future

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India walks in the Paddock before final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez has confirmed that his sponsors are yet to make a decision about his Formula 1 future as speculation about a move away from Force India persists.

Force India team owner Vijay Mallya said over the British Grand Prix weekend that both Perez and teammate Nico Hulkenberg were under contract for 2017.

However, Perez revealed that although this was correct, his Mexican sponsors were yet to decide whether or not to continue with Force India, the understanding being that his contract has an escape clause.

Perez previously said his sponsors would make a decision on his future over the summer break, but explained in Spa on Thursday that nothing has been firmed up.

“They’ve decided nothing yet. I hope in the next couple of months, we can announce where I’m heading or what I’m doing with my future,” Perez told NBCSN.

“I’m not stressed about it. I know whatever happens, that will be the best for my future. I will give my best. Right now I want to focus on Spa, enjoy the present and try to close up the gap to Williams and beat Williams.”

Perez stressed that he is happy at Force India despite being linked with moves to Renault and Williams.

“I’ve always said that I’m very happy here in the team. I’ve had a tremendous three years here, a lot of enjoyment,” Perez said.

“I think it’s a very key part of the decision that wherever you are that you enjoy what you’re doing, you have fun and you like the people, and here I enjoy it a lot.

“We’ll see what happens obviously. The decision is not fully on my side but we’ll see.”

Raikkonen quickest, Mercedes struggles in final Belgian GP practice

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen offered a glimpse of his affinty for the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps by leading the final Formula 1 practice session on Saturday morning ahead of qualifying.

After seeing Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen share the practice spoils on Friday, Raikkonen hit back with a fastest lap of 1:47.974 to finish two-tenths of a second clear of Daniel Ricciardo.

Red Bull driver Ricciardo led for much of the session after completing his super-soft run early on, but still finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Ferrari.

Valtteri Bottas finished the session fourth for Williams ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who could only go P5 with a late lap in FP3 after a mistake at the final chicane. Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg could only finish P7 as Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg split the pair. Felipe Massa was eighth for Williams ahead of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean.

Verstappen completed just two laps for Red Bull before being forced to sit out the remainder of the session due to a gearbox sensor issue. Marcus Ericsson could only manage five laps before a problem on his Sauber curtailed his running.

FP3 also saw a couple of near-misses between drivers on-track. Pascal Wehrlein was left fuming after being blocked by Esteban Gutierrez on the Kemmel Straight, while Vettel was less than impressed after a close run with Kevin Magnussen, saying over the radio: “It’s free practice, who gives a s**t?”

Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.