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Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. like expected changes to Chase

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR officials have heard the criticism for years, that the Chase for the Sprint Cup format has given Jimmie Johnson an unfair advantage, and that’s why he’s won six titles in the last eight seasons.

NASCAR officials have also seen at-track attendance, TV ratings and overall fan interest in the Chase decline in recent years.

Now with rumored changes to the Chase format expected to be announced Thursday in the final day of the annual NASCAR Media Tour, Johnson joked that perhaps those changes may be partly geared to slow him down or stop him from winning a seventh championship or more.

“It’s crossed my mind, I’m not going to lie to you,” Johnson said, before turning serious and adding, “I don’t think I’m the reason that things have declined in our sport and why viewership is down. And I don’t think NASCAR is picking on me and keeping me from winning a championship.”

On top of changes to qualifying announced last week by NASCAR, numerous media reports – and several Sprint Cup drivers have already alluded to possible changes during the first two days of the media tour – have the 10-year Chase format taking on a dramatic new look in 2014.

First is that the 12-driver field would be potentially be expanded to 16. Next, there would be elimination phases, with the likelihood of four drivers each being eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races of the 10-race Chase.

That would set up a four-driver, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, something Johnson endorses. If one of the four drivers wins the race, he’s crowned champion. If none of the four wins, the highest finisher would become the champ.

“You change the odds by 16 cars being in there, but in the postseason you have to win,” Johnson said. “And the champion has always won races and you have to win a lot. That’s how we’ve won our championships, so I don’t think a lot changes there.”

This would be the most significant change in Chase history.

“I was shocked to hear what was being proposed,” Johnson said. “It kind of caught me from left field. But if that’s the bullet we need, then I’m for it. We need our grandstands full, we need the (TV) viewership numbers to be through the roof and we need our sponsors getting the best return on their investment.

“I don’t know if this is it, we’ll find out. It’s certainly going to be exciting to shake things up and hopefully that brings eyeballs to what we do.”

Count Johnson’s teammate and car co-owner, Jeff Gordon, as being in favor of a new format.

And why wouldn’t Gordon be in favor of it? He might actually steal a championship away from Johnson, something Gordon hasn’t been able to do during Johnson’s reign. Gordon’s fourth and last Sprint Cup title was in 2001.

“It’s all about entertainment and I think this is definitely a big step toward keeping the entertainment factor very, very high,” Gordon said. “I love (NASCAR’s new) qualifying procedure. I’ve been a big fan of knockout qualifying in Formula One for a number of years and I think it’s fantastic and I can’t wait for us to get that started. We still have to walk through it a few times before we really see how it works in NASCAR, but all in all, I think everybody’s going to be very entertained, including the drivers.”

The rumored changes also get Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s approval.

“If this thing creates a lot of storylines, that’s good for the sport and keeps the fan interest going throughout the season,” Earnhardt said. “I’m excited about it.”

Like Johnson, Earnhardt even paused to inject some levity to a change that the sanctioning body hopes fans will embrace.

“I wasn’t really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “You kind of had to get used to it. Now, let’s just change it all. I’m all for it.”

Johnson hopes fans give any changes a chance, particularly since it’s been fans that have clamored for changes to the Chase in recent years.

“When the Chase came along, it was a significant change that helped in a lot of ways,” Johnson said. “And then we’ve seen some minor changes since that haven’t really moved the needle. In my opinion, many share the same opinion that something big needed to happen. Here it is, we think it’s going to be this and we’ll find out soon. Something big needs to happen, and something big is going to happen.”

Zach Veach confirmed with Belardi to start 2016 Indy Lights season

Photo: Belardi Auto Racing
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Two-year Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series veteran Zach Veach will return to the series in 2016 following a year’s hiatus. At the moment, it’s for the start of the season only but with the intended plan of making it a full-season effort.

The young American joins the Belardi Auto Racing team, which he narrowly lost out to in his last full-time campaign in 2014 when he finished third in the points.

Veach, who turns 21 next month, is Brian Belardi’s first confirmed driver for the 2016 season. Perhaps one of the single most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy, Veach has been on all three rungs (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000) since 2010 and spent 2015 as a color commentator for the IndyCar Radio Network.

He tested for the team last month at Sebring, and will have several other tests before the St. Petersburg season opening weekend March 11-13.

“I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Brian Belardi has given me,” Veach said. “After racing against his team for so many years, I’ve always had a ton of respect for him, his crew, and of course, his cars. Belardi Auto Racing competes to win championships and I would love to give them their second Indy Lights title.

“Right now, we only have a partial program in place, but with a great amount of effort on both sides. We will be doing everything possible to try to get funding together for an entire season, so we can put a championship fight in place. I look towards winter testing, and 2016, with a lot of hope and excitement.”

“We’re really happy to have Zach confirmed with us for next year, and we’ll work closely with him to make sure that we can get the funding we need to run him all season,” Belardi added.

“He’s a supreme talent both in and out of the car, and his initial test outings in the car were just as we expected.  Zach was on-pace very early in Sebring after familiarizing himself with the new Indy Lights car, and I know that we’ll challenge for race wins and the championship next year.”

ARCA releases 2016 schedule; Mobile out, Madison (Wisc.) returns

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The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards will have only minor changes to the 2016 season, the sanctioning body said Wednesday after revealing next season’s schedule.

The biggest change is Mobile, Alabama is off the schedule, to be replaced by a return to Madison, Wisconsin.

As ARCA enters its 64th consecutive year of racing, the schedule will once again feature 20 races for the third consecutive year, starting at Daytona International Speedway on February 13 and ending on Oct. 14 at Kansas Speedway.

ARCA 2016 sked



All told, there will be nine races on short tracks, eight on superspeedways, two on dirt and one on a road course.

“We are pleased to announce our full and complete schedule,” ARCA President Ron Drager said. “We feel we have once again put together a schedule that highlights the diversity of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. We are excited for the start of the new season.”

Other changes include:

* The annual Chicagoland Speedway race will be moved to Thursday night, Sept. 15, kicking off the opening weekend of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* The road course race at New Jersey will be moved to Saturday, May 28, rather than its previous Sunday afternoon date.

* The annual dirt race at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in Illinois will shift from an afternoon to an evening race.

* The series will mark milestone events with the 75th series event at Toledo Speedway and the 99th and 100th races at southern Indiana’s Salem Speedway.

* The series will have companion races with all three of NASCAR’s pro touring series, as well as one weekend as the undercard for the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway in July.

* As for the return to Madison, Drager said, “It was important for us to schedule a race in the Menards market. Last year, we did not have a race in either Minnesota or Wisconsin and this year, we decided to go back. We are definitely looking forward to racing again at Madison and the upper Midwest.”

* The annual awards banquet takes place Dec. 12 in Indianapolis.

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Ecclestone has ‘no doubts’ Monza will remain on F1 calendar

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MILAN (AP) Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is confident the Italian Grand Prix in Monza can find the needed cash to stay on the calendar.

Ecclestone tells the Gazzetta dello Sport, “We will find the right solution – I no longer have doubts – to provide a future for the Italian GP.”

No circuit has hosted more F1 racing than Monza, but officials at the track outside Milan have had trouble producing the estimated 25 million euros ($26.6 million) per year that Ecclestone seeks to keep the race in place after the current contract expires next year.

Ecclstone says, “Things have been cleared up and there is only one go between, (Angelo) Sticchi Damiani, the president of the Italian Automobile Club.”

The Italian GP next year is scheduled for Sept. 4.

Alternative engine solution rejected by F1 Commission

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Plans to introduce a new alternative, cheaper engine into Formula 1 for 2017 – hypothetically a 2.2-liter V6 similar to what is seen in IndyCar – will at least temporarily go on the backburner.

The F1 Commission has rejected the so called “alternative engine solution,” where several companies submitted proposals to be that alternative supplier.

“The F1 Commission voted not to pursue this option at this stage — however, it may be reassessed after the Power Unit manufacturers have presented their proposal to the Strategy Group,” the FIA said on Wednesday.

“The parties involved have agreed on a course to address several key areas relating to Power Unit supply in Formula One,” the statement added.

Meanwhile the statement outlined four things the current manufacturers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda – would be tasked with improving on the current 1.6-liter formula:

Those are:

  • a guarantee of supply to teams
  • the need to reduce the engines’ cost
  • simplification of the specification
  • “improved noise”

Further meetings between the manufacturers and the governing body are scheduled, including one this weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale.

As F1 heads into the final weekend of the season, political/paddock items such as Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s respective power unit futures, whether Renault’s takeover of Lotus will finally become official and what will happen with Manor’s team leadership stake – this marks Graeme Lowdon and John Booth’s final weekends although ex-McLaren man Dave Ryan has been hired as the team’s new racing director – are among the talking points.