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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.”

Porsche wins, champs crowned in rain-shortened Petit Le Mans

Photo: IMSA
Photo: IMSA

BRASELTON, Ga. – One of the more bizarre races in recent sports car history was called just prior to the eight-hour mark, as IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield made the decision to end the 2015 edition of the Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda early.

It produced a surprise winner, as the GT Le Mans class No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR secured an overall victory courtesy of a storming drive from Nick Tandy and co-driver Patrick Pilet. Third driver Richard Lietz did not get to drive in the race.

Pilet has now secured the GTLM class championship, too, as a result.

Meanwhile Action Express Racing stormed from behind to win its second consecutive Prototype class championship.

The No. 5 Corvette DP of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais finished third overall – behind both the No. 911 car and No. 24 BMW Z4 GTE – but the result was enough to give it a class win and the class championship.

Other class champions include Jon Bennett and Colin Braun in Prototype Challenge in the No. 54 CORE autosport Oreca FLM09 and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia in GT Daytona. Like the Action Express pairing, Bell and Sweedler came from behind to win the title.

Other race winners were the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 of Tom Kimber-Smith, Mike Guasch and Andrew Palmer in PC and the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT America of Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey and Madison Snow in GTD.

The race was slowed by 10 full-course cautions and a number of accidents, spins, and other off-course excursions.

It also featured a red flag of one hour and five minutes during the race, but the race was resumed.

Barfield explained the decision to call the race when he did in a post-race press conference with assembled reporters:

“So a big part of reconnecting with the drivers and competitors in this paddock has been really open communication,” Barfield said.

“For the basis of this decision, I go back to Watkins Glen. At Watkins Glen because of the imminent weather we had coming there and how it ended up being managed, we encouraged more open dialogue to gather as much information as possible for our decision process.

“As it turned out that was very successful how they communicated real time.

“So going into this event, with the weather being similarly predictably bad, we reestablished that. How we communicated and went about it the same way.

“Today was really similar to that with our attention to our attention to what was going on the track and on the TV screeens, and with looking at the radar. With my knowledge of this track having spent a lot of time here in the past. Having a quick car availbel for recon laps during the vents. All of our decisions were for gathering information from those different directions.

“Fast forward to the very end of the race, the last restart, I felt in my gut that with the visibility issues, you have to think about these issues that produce two problems.

“One is the grip, hydroplaning – whatever part of the world you’re from – where issues where drivers have less control. An often forgotten major issue is the visibility. Cars with downforce shoot up such a spray, it’s hard to see around.

“The grip issue was one and dealt with but we had some daylight. The visibility was a problem. But not as it great as it became in the last hour when we lost sunlight.

“The light with the track conditions gave me no comfort level to go back green that is. What I saw on track, the visibility issues I had with a Porsche on track, you had the speed they had, you’d have to drop into night with a sunset, I felt like I’d be putting driver out there completely blind.

“So this decision was made to pull the plug and do the checkered flag.”

Bottas: Williams turning focus to 2016 car

Williams driver Valtteri Bottas of Finland steers his car to set the third fastest time during the qualifying session at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Belgium, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. The Belgium Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
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Valtteri Bottas has explained how Williams is beginning to turn its attention to the development of its car for the 2016 Formula 1 season as the team settles into third place in the constructors’ championship.

Williams has struggled to put up much of a fight to Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field in 2015, picking up just three podium finishes.

With five races to go in the season, the team sits comfortably in third place in the constructors’ standings, knowing that neither the 129 point gap to Ferrari ahead or the 69 point difference to Red Bull behind are likely to be bridged.

As a result, the team is now turning attention to its 2016 car, the FW38, as explained by Bottas in his post-Japanese Grand Prix blog.

“As we get to this stage of the season some of the focus is switching to next year’s car and for sure we’ve been developing the FW38 for a long time,” Bottas said.

“That’s the target until the end of the season – to look ahead and put us in the best place for 2016. But if we can also find something that benefits this year’s car then we’ll use it as we would like to get more podiums before the season finishes. And if we can get closer to Ferrari then all the better.”

Williams has looked most comfortable at the high-speed tracks so far this season, and with the likes of the Circuit of The Americas, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and the Yas Marina Circuit all to come, the team should be in good stead for the final leg of the year.

“Most of the tracks we’re still going to this year should be good for us, so that’s very positive,” Bottas said. “I believe the upgrades we introduced for Singapore gave us more downforce and worked well, so they definitively worked here too.

“We ran the same bits on the car at Suzuka and were competitive but, obviously, Red Bull and Ferrari have made improvements too and they’ll be very difficult to beat in the coming races.”