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Give new Chase for Sprint Cup format a chance

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Thursday’s announcement by NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France presented the most significant changes yet in the decade-old Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff format.

In so doing, France may have finally added the final piece to a puzzle that long had a feeling something was missing throughout the first 10 years of its existence.

France has long sought to inject a Final Four or Super Bowl type feel into the Chase. From the time the format was first conceived and then implemented in 2004, several tweaks were made in subsequent years to potentially enrich the overall experience for fans, drivers, team owners, sponsors and media.

Among those changes: The original driver field was increased from 10 to 12, adding two wild card entries. The overall points system was overhauled to make it simplified for fans and drivers alike.

And yet, while France touted the revisions and tweaks to the Chase, attendance continued to wane at race tracks, while TV ratings were stagnant if not diminished.

Some fans liked the Chase format and flocked to it. Others hated it, with some so much in disfavor that they took the ultimate step of losing interest in the sport.

And then there was a sizeable crowd of fans who grew frustrated that their favorite driver – be it Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or whomever – was constantly being one-upped by Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus as they merrily went on to win six of the last eight Cup championships.

But Thursday’s announcement should be the thing that finally moves the needle to the positive for NASCAR.

Just the seemingly endless marketing aspects of the new elimination-style format are enough to make NASCAR Vice President of Marketing Steve Phelps call it a “dream come true” for him and his staff.

Sure, no matter what France and NASCAR does, there is just no pleasing some fans. The Twittersphere was abuzz after France’s announcement. Many comments seemed to reflect ratcheting up the hate fans already had of the old format without even giving the new format a chance.

Others said they were done with NASCAR.

But there were also a lot of fans that expressed sentiments clearly in support of the new changes.

One fan (@MDSasquatch) even tweeted “not sure about the new format, but I sure am looking forward to seeing it in action. Homestead is going to be epic!”

And “epic” is exactly what France and the rest of NASCAR is going for. They took the first step in that direction Thursday.

Granted, there is a large segment of fans that believe the driver with the most wins or points should be the champion. That’s old school thinking at best.

And while NASCAR has historically been an old school sport, it also knew it had to get with the times and modernize for nothing short of its ultimate survival.

NASCAR has perhaps suffered more than any other major professional sports league from the economic downturn of the last seven years, losing countless fans and TV viewers, suffering major drops in media coverage and even having several teams go out of business.

If you’re France or president Mike Helton, you can’t sit on your hands, stomp your feet and hold your breath until you turn blue to force things to change.

If what you have in place isn’t working or isn’t attracting the kinds of numbers you seek, you have to sometimes make a bold move, as France did Thursday. You sometimes have to go against the grain, even if it appears to be a gamble that could go either way.

To gain back old fans, attract new fans and increase at-track attendance and TV viewership, NASCAR could not kept the status quo and done nothing. Had that happened, it’s unlikely there wouldn’t have been any significant changes in attendance and eyeballs any time soon.

But now after Thursday, the NASCAR fandom world is abuzz with the likes of:

“Hey, did you hear what Brian France announced?”

“Wow, what do you think about the new changes in the Chase?”

“I’m curious to see how this new format is going to play out.”

And, of course:

“Anything to keep Jimmie Johnson from winning another one.”

“Hey, maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally will win a championship this way.”

Thursday’s announcement wasn’t a snap decision.

France said he and other officials of the sanctioning body, along with representatives from the three series’ auto manufacturers (Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota), numerous sponsors, stakeholders and even a number of fans spent nearly three years – and went through numerous scenarios – before arriving at the new format.

This is a well thought out system, in my mind. But like anything, is it perfect? Probably not. There likely will be a glitch or two along the way. There will also likely be times where NASCAR may have to step in and make a rules determination that might not sit well with some, or to make an interpretation that will not be popular with fans and drivers.

But this is what we have now and we owe it to ourselves and the sport to at least see how it plays out.

Without trying to sound blasphemous to lifelong fans of The Beatles, if the late John Lennon were a NASCAR fan, he might change one of his signature songs from “Give Peace a Chance” to “Give the New Chase a Chance.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Maxwell, Rabe win CTSC poles at Road Atlanta

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Scott Maxwell (No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Shelby GT350R-C) and Jason Rabe (No. 31 Bodymotion Racing Porsche Cayman) have the pole positions for Friday’s Road Atlanta 150, the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale.

Maxwell extended a pole streak in GS and has his sixth pole of the year in the car he shares with Billy Johnson, as the pair look to secure the title.

Meanwhile Rabe has his first career ST pole in the entry he shares with Devin Jones, following his fastest lap of the weekend.

Two accidents interrupted the session. A worse-looking one occurred in ST when Michael Johnson hit the concrete barrier before Turns 10 and 10A in the No. 54 JDC Motorsports BMW 228i and Jeff Mosing in the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman was also involved, but both drivers were checked and released.

Meanwhile Peter Ludwig had an off in Turn 3 in the No. 21 Muehlner Motorsports America Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport in the GS qualifying session, but had minimal damage.

Qualifying results are linked here.

Friday’s race rolls off at 12:25 p.m. ET and is the last two-hour, 30-minute race for the Continental Tire Challenge before standard races shift to two hours in 2017, with two four-hour endurance races also on the schedule.

Donny Schatz, Clauson-Marshall Racing enter 2017 Chili Bowl

CONCORD, NC - MAY 22:  Team owner Tony Stewart (R) jokes with Donny Schatz, driver of the #15 ArmorAll Chevrolet, in the team hauler prior to the World Of Outlaws - Sprint Car Series on May 22, 2009 at the Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for Motorsports Management International)
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Cool story here as the legacy of Bryan Clauson will be honored with the Clauson-Marshall Racing team and seven-time and defending World of Outlaws champion Donny Schatz at next year’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. Schatz will make his Chili Bowl debut.

A full release and further details are below:

Seven-time and defending World of Outlaws (WoO) Craftsman Sprint Car Series champion, Donny Schatz, announced today he will compete in the 2017 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals driving for Clauson-Marshall Racing (CMR). Schatz will be making his Chili Bowl debut and the entry is the first for the multicar CMR team in the 31st running of the event held Jan. 9 to 14 at the River Spirit Expo Center.

“I’m looking forward to having the chance to compete in next year’s Chili Bowl and drive for Clauson-Marshall Racing,” Schatz said. “We’ve been thinking about doing this for quite a while. It all came together earlier this year when Tony (Stewart) and I were talking about the Chili Bowl and what it’s like to be part of it. With how things worked out with my Australia schedule in January, the opportunity to get to Tulsa this time became an option and everything fell into place. I was looking forward to working with and learning from Bryan. He set the standard pretty high there and we’re going to do everything we can to continue adding to that legacy. I’ve been fortunate to compete in some of the biggest dirt track events in the world during my career and I’m excited to add the Chili Bowl to the list.”

Schatz, a teammate with the late Bryan Clauson at Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing (TSR) for five seasons from 2010 to 2014, is looking forward to making his Chili Bowl debut in January with the CMR team. Both won championships for TSR and their similar driving style and respect for other competitors, along with a clean racing history, helped forge a bond between to the two.

As Clauson made his way into Winged Sprint car competition, Schatz served as a role model both on and off the track. Clauson was a student of whatever motorsports discipline he participated in and, when transitioning to Winged Sprint car competition, he felt that Schatz was the only driver to learn from. There wasn’t a driver Clauson respected more than Schatz, and he was his first choice when putting together a team.

After the 2016 Chili Bowl, Clauson and his father Tim discussed bringing a “Dream Team” to the 2017 event. The idea was to bring a team of drivers who were at the top of their game, not only competitively in their respective series but also professionally. The duo wanted to bring a team that was a threat to win every night of the Chili Bowl and carry themselves as professionals outside the car, as well. The Clauson family felt Schatz fit the bill and was thrilled its 2017 team would include the reigning WoO Craftsman Sprint Car Series champion.

“Before Bryan passed, we had confirmed that Donny (Schatz) was going to be part of our 2017 Chili Bowl team,” Tim Clauson said. “He (Bryan) was pretty excited to get to work with a driver like Donny and share his Midget car racing expertise. Being able to announce Donny as our first driver for the 2017 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals is both humbling and exciting for the Clauson-Marshall Racing team, and we know Bryan is thrilled that we’re able to do so.”

More information regarding Schatz’s 2017 Chili Bowl entry with Clauson-Marshall Racing will be announced in the coming months.

Schatz is in the midst of his 20th season of WoO competition and is chasing his eighth championship. With nine of 83 events remaining, his 23 victories are among 55 top-five finishes and 70 top-10s. He leads the WoO Craftsman Sprint Car Series standings with 10,317 points, with a 284-point lead over second place.

IMSA: Shank tops both Thursday afternoon practice sessions

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Olivier Pla and Ozz Negri split being the fastest driver, but both share the same fastest car, the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda, after the first two of three practice sessions for this weekend’s Petit Le Mans, the season finale of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship campaign.

Pla topped the morning session with a best time of 1:14.157 around the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta road course, while Negri went quicker in the warmer afternoon conditions at 1:13.923.

“I can’t say enough about my Michael Shank Racing team, the crew, my engineer Dale (Wise), Gary (Karamikian) at Honda HPD, they’ve all been working flat out. I’m giddy about having this group of people including Olivier Pla on this team. We like the same thing in the car. Anything he asks for with the set up works for me, and whatever I ask for works for him. It’s just a great thing. We are here for one objective which is to be up front and win this race,” Negri told IMSA Radio.

The No. 60 Shank Ligier Honda is not in the championship battle in Prototype. Among the three title contenders, the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP (Dane Cameron, Eric Curran and Simon Pagenaud) ended ahead of the sister No. 5 car (Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Filipe Albuquerque) in both sessions. The No. 31 was third, the No. 5 fourth in the morning and then fourth and fifth, respectively in the afternoon.

In both instances, they trailed at least one of the two Mazda Prototypes.

Renger van der Zande (morning, No. 8 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09) and Johnny Mowlem (afternoon, No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09) were the two PC session leaders. Van der Zande’s time of 1:16.235 was best of the day to this point.

In the GT ranks, the guest entry from Scuderia Corsa was fastest. Daniel Serra, who won the pole position back at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca earlier this year, had the best GT Le Mans time of the day in the afternoon in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE at 1:18.354. Antonio Garcia topped morning practice in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R at 1:18.840.

The Porsche 911 GT3 R led both sessions in GT Daytona. Alex Riberas topped the first session in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R at 1:21.788 before Jorg Bergmeister was quicker in the afternoon at 1:21.340 in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Session results are below. Night practice is scheduled from 7:30 to 9 p.m. ET and local time.

PRACTICE 1
PRACTICE 2

Perez wants F1 future resolved in next week as delays continues

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India in the Paddock during previews for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 29, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez wants to get his Formula 1 plans for 2017 firmed up in the next week after growing tired of continued delays in talks with Force India.

Perez had hoped to make an announcement regarding his future following the summer break at the Belgian Grand Prix, only for delays to postpone any confirmation.

The Mexican had been linked with moves to Williams and Renault, but his sponsors are understood to have settled on keeping him at Force India for another season.

Perez said in Singapore two weeks ago that he expected to make an announcement prior to this weekend’s race in Malaysia, but nothing has been confirmed.

Speaking to reporters in Sepang on Thursday, Perez expressed his frustration before saying he wanted his future resolved in the next week, or would begin to look elsewhere for a drive – potentially outside of F1.

“I believe that next week is crucial to sort out my future, so by next week I need to know if the option remains or if I have to look somewhere else,” Perez is quoted as saying by AFP.

“At the moment I hope it works out with one team, and if it doesn’t then by next week we will have to look at something else.

“Obviously I want to keep my career in Formula 1 going, but I cannot wait much longer.”

Perez joined Force India in 2014 after a one-year stint with McLaren, and has managed to revive his career with Vijay Mallya’s team, leading to speculation about a move up the grid.

Perez is thought to be in contention for a seat at Ferrari once Kimi Raikkonen calls time on his spell in F1, with a one-year extension with Force India a consideration if he is to make himself available to the Scuderia.