Here is a transcript of Thursday’s announcement by NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France and NASCAR president Mike Helton (moderated by NASCAR vice president Brett Jewkes), revealing significant changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format (transcript courtesy: NASCAR):
BRIAN FRANCE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for an announcement that will help define the future of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. You know NASCAR’s core responsibility is to always look down the road and position the industry to excite our fans with the highest level of competition in the world. We’re also working closer than ever with Sprint, our auto manufacturers, Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet, and all of our business partners to continue to grow and enhance the sport. Central to that is the responsibility and making sure we put on the best and most exciting racing product on the track each and every week. That’s what our fans expect, that’s what we expect, and they tell us that every day.
For more than three years we’ve been contemplating ways to elevate the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship format in the following ways: First, we’ve talked about putting greater emphasis on winning races. Something our fans overwhelmingly want; second, make competing and running for a championship much simpler and much simpler to understand; third, expand opportunities for more drivers to compete for the championship while ultimately rewarding the most worthy, battle-tested champion.
We’ve looked at a number of concepts through fan research, models and simulations and also maintained extensive dialogue with our drivers, teams, tracks, and all of our partners.
We now have arrived at a format that makes every race matter more. It will promote compelling competition for wins all season long. Ultimately, it will reward a very worthy champion at the end of each season, with the best of the best winner-take-all showdown.
Here’s how the new championship format for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will work: First, the Chase grid. Essentially, our playoff bracket will now expand to 16 drivers and they will be all set at the conclusion of the Richmond event. Winning races will be the primary criteria in qualifying for the Chase grid, with the season-long leading points leader as the secondary and only other criteria, should there be fewer than 16 winners in the first 26 races.
The first three races of the Chase will now be known as the Challenger Round. A win in any of these races guarantees advancement into the next round. The leading 12 drivers in wins and points will advance after these races while the lowest four drivers will be eliminated from the championship. All points will then be reset for the next round.
The next three races in the Chase will be known as the Contender Round. Eight more drivers will advance, and four drivers will be eliminated after the sixth race of the Chase. Again, a win in any of those events advances a driver to the next round.
The next three races will be called the Eliminator Round. Four drivers will emerge from this round out of Phoenix to compete in the championship event. Race winners from the eliminated round and the fastest — or the highest, rather, remaining points earner. The final event of the season will settle the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. No math, no bonus points for leading laps, previous wins. It’s going to be the first of four drivers to cross the finish line, and that will define the NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion. You know what, that’s as simple as it gets.
This new format rewards winning. It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule. It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line.
The new Chase will be thrilling, easy to understand, and help drive our sports competition to a whole new level. So thank you very much for attending today. I’m going to turn it back over to Brad Jukes.
BRETT JEWKES: Want to go ahead and invite NASCAR President, Mike Helton, to the stage. While he’s coming up, just remind you, this graphic and all the materials will be available on the media website or from my team somewhere around the room tonight.
We’ll start with just a couple of opening questions and then we’ll go to the media. So, Brian, obviously a big shift in the championship format. Can you share a little bit and characterize some of the discussions with the stakeholders and the process to getting here today?
BRIAN FRANCE: It started three years ago when we first talked about some version of an elimination format. But that in itself wasn’t appealing to us because we also wanted to deal with the points racing and change the proportion to making winning more important every race. So when we got all the facts together and we talked about how to qualify for the Chase, this checked every box that we could have possibly looked at.
It’s going to elevate racing. It’s going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin. It’s going to change the strategies. It’s going to allow for drivers, and we’ll talk about more of this, if they have a bad race in the Chase, in the current Chase, it’s very difficult for them to move on. This will be different. Everything is focused around winning, and that is exactly what our fans want.
BRETT JEWKES: Obviously a lot of research done and dialogue. Some of our long-time fans have voiced their concerns. What would you say to them about this format?
BRIAN FRANCE: We understand that. We have millions of fans and we have some very loud and passionate fans, especially when we change anything. We understand that. The vast majority of the fans that we communicated with, and I think we’re the best in sports in staying close to our fan base, really love this. They love it because they really don’t like points racing.
At the end of the day, although consistency is important in our sport, and it remains important, it’s just less important, so they like that. They understand winner-take-all formats, and they understand being the best down the stretch. You can note any of the other examples of that where Tony Stewart one year made that incredible run. They love those moments. This is going to elevate the opportunity for more drivers to have those moments.
Q. Speaking of long-time passionate fans, Mike, do you want to add anything to that?
MIKE HELTON: Only that I think when the chatter first started getting out that we were considering making significant changes, obviously, if we didn’t go pursue opinions and ideas, we were getting a lot of opinions and ideas about it. As we were able to explain our thought process, I think the acceptance of it and the fact that, yeah, that does sound exciting, and it does sound like it comes together.
I think today as we’re now able to go public with all the details of it, the fans will get the opportunity to digest it all and will understand it. I’ve been an avid fan for 50 years. There have been times in my career at NASCAR I’ve had to set my avid fan hat off to make tough decisions. This process, this decision, where we’re going with the Grid and the Challenge Round and the Contender Round and Eliminator Round to get to our championship is exciting to me professionally, but it’s even more so exciting to me as an avid fan.
Q. Obviously, for many years now you guys have been reluctant to take race wins away as a penalty, particularly in the Sprint Cup Series. Now that the sport is basically going all in on making winning the most important thing, is there going to be any kind of matching aspect from the policing standpoint that people might do anything to get a win? Since they haven’t been taken away previously, they would still get to keep it?
MIKE HELTON: Well, we’ll officiate the sport the same way. We get the fact that this puts pressure on us officiating, and we feel like we’re capable of stepping up to it.
Currently, or through the Chase through 2013 we had a clause where a win could be removed as part of the eligibility to get into the Chase. Some of that gets tweaked a little bit, but the officiating part of our sport stays the same. Depending on, and we’ve got some other announcements that will be coming in another week or so about some of the New Gen competition that talks about rules and regulations and how transparent they’ll become going forward, and all of that will be made clear in that.
Q. Jimmie Johnson told us he was surprised at this announcement only because he had heard other options being discussed. How many options did you have for implementing a new system, and why was this ultimately the right one?
BRIAN FRANCE: We had several options, including not doing anything at all. We had conveyed these options at one time or another with all the teams. It’s only when we — when everything came together for us. The big thing is winning. We’ve been talking about that for a while. The reason we’re talking about that so much is our fans are telling us we really value consistency. But, boy, do we like it when there is more risk-taking and more incentive to win.
The drivers will race to whatever format we have, and if that’s a consistency-based model, that’s how they will try to adapt because that may be the best way to achieve their goal. This is pretty clear. You have to win, and you have to compete at a higher level. You’re probably going to have to take more chances and different strategies are going to unfold, but that’s why we did it.
Q. Brian, a few specific scenarios have come up under this emphasis on winning. One was the Watkins Glen race last year where Brad Keselowski did not have a win and was chasing Kyle Busch. Under this new scenario, is the expectation there for Keselowski to move him and get that win to lock himself into the Chase, and is that going to be acceptable by NASCAR?
BRIAN FRANCE: We’re real clear about this. Whether this format or any format, if it’s late in the race and you’ve got a faster car, we expect some contact. We expect, obviously there are limits, but that’s always part of NASCAR to have some version of contact late in the race. Will this bring more of that? I’m sure it will to some level, but that’s NASCAR.
Q. I have more questions concerning qualifying which is a little bit surprising for me. It looks very similar, nearly identical to Formula 1. If this is correct, did you get in touch with your colleagues at the Formula 1 business? Also, I want to double check race weekend. Is it true that per car, per team there is only one race engine allowed and if so, do you not see a very big risk for engine failure when you have to run an engine the whole race weekend? Because I understand the break between the segments, the qualifying segment is relatively short.
MIKE HELTON: The first question about our new qualifying process is we didn’t seek out to duplicate anybody else’s formats. We simply created one, and based on experience though, just like any other form of entertainment or sports, we take what is going on and create its own.
But our new qualifying format was something that we’ve talked about for several years. I won’t sit here and tell you that we wouldn’t sit and watch Formula 1 qualifying, because we do, and did we pick up something off of that that might be useful? Probably so. But ours is ours, and ours is the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series qualifying now.
Your second question, let me just say that all the things that you mentioned in your question can happen today. That is the magic of sports. It’s the thrill of winning, the agony of defeat. In our sport you have the hardware elements and other elements that contribute to all of that. But a lot of the things that come up in scenarios that we work through and that others presented along the way before we finalized their decisions were the very same things that could happen today regardless of what the format is.
Q. As you’re probably aware there has been a lot of speculation this week leading up to today. Several drivers put it out there and wondered might there be something in the future where the tracks are rotated because of this emphasis on winning? Is that something that you’d look at in the future as maybe changing up the schedule a little bit in the Chase? I know you get that question every year.
BRIAN FRANCE: We did. And traditionally we like the continuity of our schedule, traditionally. We’ll look at that, but right now we’re focused on 2014.
Q. Brian, I understand the emphasis on winning and it certainly seems like you need a victory to get into the Chase. But once you’re in the Chase are there scenarios here where a driver could advance through each round without a win and win the championship without a victory at Homestead, and given that, is there a danger your four contenders could have trouble at Homestead and win a title with a mediocre finish?
BRIAN FRANCE: That can happen now. There are any number of scenarios. What is probable is not that. But there are plenty of scenarios that we could sit here all day and talk about. But the most likely scenario is — and it is the most likely scenario now that the best teams at the right moment, and Jimmie Johnson has certainly been the best at that, they don’t cruise into a championship. They’re winning races in the final ten, and they’re competing really hard at Homestead, especially when it’s tight.
Q. This is quite a swing for the fence by you and your staff. I’m just curious how much of this is about insuring that NASCAR racing in the industry is relevant in the broader sports and entertainment landscape for an entire year?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, it helps us in that. When I said checks all the boxes, I meant that. The avid fans like it because they don’t particularly care for points racing, even though they understand it. The casual fans don’t understand points racing, and they don’t even understand when we go into Richmond often, with all the mathematicals, you’ve got to have a computer next to you to figure out who is in and who is out at a given moment. Clears all that off and then emphasizes winning, which everybody understands.
So this is appealing to everybody. That is the beauty of — we wouldn’t be making the announcement if we thought it just did a little bit of good and maybe it did or a lot of good and possibly didn’t help one area of NASCAR. We wouldn’t have done it. This checks all the boxes. Winning, simplicity, makes the teams at the right time, just as they do now, by the way, probably elevates it. Have to compete at a higher level. That’s not just the driver.
Tony Stewart told me, I was complimenting him the other day about his big run a couple years ago in Miami where he had to win the race, and he did, and he said, look, that was a team effort. He said they got my car where I could do that and they stepped up at the right time. This is a team sport, nonetheless, even though the driver wins the race. So it’s going to force the teams to take more risk in the race. You’re going to have to, you know? Fuel mileage or whatever you want to call it, different strategies, it’s all going to unfold. Because riding around and being pleased because the current format rewards consistency, those days are going to be pretty much over.
Q. Do you feel like you’re taking a big risk with this decision? If so, can you talk about weighing what risks you believe you’re taking?
BRIAN FRANCE: The biggest risk would be not to do it. When something checks every box and it’s so clear, and we’ve done our homework, hopefully, in how we’ve designed it, we’ve talked to all of our industry and most importantly, our fans. Because if they don’t like what we do, then nothing matters. And, overwhelmingly, the more they understand it, the better it gets. So the risk is for us — it’s always for us not to figure out how to elevate racing and competition.
We’ve talked about our rules packages. We’re hard at work on that as well. And everything is designed around what you know about NASCAR. Close, tight, tough competition, and this does it all.
Q. Would you say this is the boldest decision that you’ve made in your tenure? I want to add to that, what kind of reach-out sessions you personally had? I know some of the team owners said that you called them and I know there were some meetings. Are you personally calling team owners and what sorts of things did you hear?
BRIAN FRANCE: Depends on who you talk to, right? It was mostly positive. I think if you like the current format you probably don’t want to change anything, and that’s understandable. But the more we could — and I talked to many track operators, certainly many drivers, certainly many owners. Ultimately, Mike and I talked to everybody.
What was really good this week is we do our annual team owner-driver meetings. When we really got to explain how the sponsors feel about it, how the fans feel about it and it sunk in. I think everything keeps getting better with the acceptance of our drivers and our teams.
Q. Brian mentioned no bonus points for leading Homestead. I was wondering if any consideration for removing a bonus point for leading a lap to help avoid a possible Richmond-like situation in the future? If there hasn’t been consideration, why are you leaving it in?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we took it out for the final race because we don’t want a math contest to try to figure out how the fifth place guy who might have been leading the other three drivers who were behind him could have lost the championship. So simplicity really matters at the final race. It’s still a part of the game though. You still want to incentivize leading laps, going to the front. We’ve obviously incentivized leading the last lap dramatically. But we want to make sure that during the course of the event that leading a lap, traditionally, that means something. We want to make sure that it means something.
Q. This is the fourth change to the Chase in the last ten years. Any concern from NASCAR that the championships’ integrity and credibility is compromised in some fans’ minds?
BRIAN FRANCE: I don’t think so at all, but things evolve. I think if you look at the other leagues, you look at the BCS has evolved. They’ll be having their own championship format this year. So these kind of things probably shouldn’t go from one place to the next. They should evolve. Because evolving means you’re getting the best ideas at the moment, and if they’re not good enough to make a change, then you don’t.
It’s not surprising that something this important has evolved versus us just getting to the right place.
Q. If a driver checks Sprint Cup Series as his series that he’s scoring points in, does he have to run a full schedule? Or if he removes himself from competition for medical reasons as Dale Jr. did a couple years ago, is he still eligible for the Chase by winning a race?
MIKE HELTON: Yes, a driver has to participate in all the championship races in order to be eligible for the championship. There is a medical exception that could be made, but that doesn’t assure that if that eligibility gets extended because of the timing of when it may or may not happen or how long the medical issue may exist. So these are the things that we’ll be able to answer later on in one-on-ones with all the specific details around it. But that is the answer for now.
Q. You talked a little about the modelling you did on this. Did you look at the impact it may have on ticket sales and also ratings and what effect, if any, do you expect it to have on that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think that the interest level and our ability to bring in new fans that this wouldn’t be a positive thing for that. While there are no, nor should there be a light switch that we can turn on or anybody can turn on, to suddenly change one metric or another. But over time as the excitement builds and the moments, this is as exciting as I’ve been, quite frankly, going into a season because of what all this means.
I believe that our fan base, new fans will see what we see around the corner. When it happens, I think it makes NASCAR more special, and that is a great thing.
Q. You had mentioned a few times about Game 7 moments. Did you basically feel it was time for NASCAR to become more of a traditional model in terms of establishing who the champion is for the season, whether it’s baseball, football or whatnot?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, partially, but this is unique to us. I mean, everybody has their own version. College basketball has a tournament, somebody else has a playoff system, somebody else has a multiple game series. This is unique to us. It captures some of the similarities, naturally, but it’s very unique to us.
Those four teams who make it to Homestead Miami will still have a full field of race cars to maneuver around, contend with. That’s part of winning it. You’ve got to beat everybody and then some. So this is unique to us. As I say, it elevates this championship at every event in a way that’s never been possible for us.
Q. The drivers who are eliminated through each round, how will they play out in terms of the point standings? Will that be where they’re just competing against those four drivers based on the reseating of the points, or will you try to put them back together to have an opportunity to finish Top 10 and have a chance to go on the stage in Vegas?
BRIAN FRANCE: Actually, and this is a good question, and this is a good foray for me to tell you. We’ve got a great suggestion on that in our driver-owner meetings by Kevin Harvick, as a matter of fact, who talked about that. We had it originally where if you fell out in the first round, you were going to finish no better than 13th. We changed that. So you’ll run now really for fifth place. Everybody’s falling out but the final four, then the rest of the Chase contenders will run for fifth place.
Q. Brian and Mike, this year Goodyear will commemorate its 60th year as the official tire of NASCAR, and Sunoco its tenth year as the official fuel. Can you give comment on what it means to have partners like that for such a long haul?
BRIAN FRANCE: In this case, it’s everything because without their technology and being such a good partner, we wouldn’t be able to run the events or certainly we wouldn’t have the kind of racing that we do. So they’ve just been tremendous partners, and they get the value of NASCAR, and we’re very proud to have Goodyear for such a long time. That’s tremendous.
Q. It’s good to have partners that have longevity to them. But it’s even better if you have a partner that has longevity and excellence attached to it. So both Goodyear and Sunoco represent a very high-end product, and they work very diligently with us to complement what we want to accomplish.
Going into 2014 it’s the 56th Annual Daytona, the 55th Annual Coca-Cola 600. And Marcus mentioned the other day that surprised me, this is the 32nd Annual Media Tour. Those are big milestones. So you can walk through the Hall of Fame and get the fact that this all didn’t happen overnight.
But the announcement we’re making today is evidenced, I think, by 65 years later, NASCAR still wants to be relevant, still wants to be a leading-edge form of entertainment in sports, and this is how you do that. You move, you move the gauge, you move the level of excitement by making big decisions.