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

NHRA at Norwalk: Torrence wins 4th race of 2017; Beckman, Butner, Tonglet also win

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Steve Torrence earned a career-best fourth Top Fuel win in a season Sunday, capturing the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) captured their third wins in 2017, while Jack Beckman (Funny Car) earned his second win of the season as the NHRA wrapped up the first half of its 24-race season.

TOP FUEL: Torrence (3.743 seconds at 331.45 mph) defeated Doug Kalitta (3.736 at 331.36) in the final round. Torrence has now reached six final rounds this season over the last eight events, with a 4-2 record.

“I knew I left good on the tree but I could tell it would just be a coin toss who got it and fortunately I was able to come out ahead,” Torrence said in an NHRA media release. “It’s been a great season so far and we are hoping to keep this momentum going.”

The win also keeps Torrence No. 1 in the Top Fuel point standings.

FUNNY CAR: “Fast Jack” Beckman (4.073 seconds at 311.85 mph) earned his 26th career win over Robert Hight (6.673 seconds at 98.53 mph). Beckman has now won two of the last three races.

“We were consistently a bit off this weekend, but we are definitely happy to earn the victory this weekend,” Beckman said. “Now that we are getting down the track consistently, it keeps our opponents honest and that is definitely a formula we will continue to use for the rest of the season.”

PRO STOCK: It was a great jump at the starting line that led Butner (6.601 seconds at 210.50 mph) to defeat Greg Anderson (6.581 seconds at 210.87 mph).

“Today was a great day, we made four pretty consistent runs and my car was good when it needed to be,” said Butner, who added to his lead in the Pro Stock standings. “It’s one thing to have a good car, but we also had a lot of things go our way to get those win lights today.”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Tonglet (6.824 seconds at 195.76 mph) earned his 13th career PSM win, defeating Matt Smith (6.882 seconds at 195.31 mph).

“I didn’t see any win lights throughout qualifying, but seeing them on Sunday is what matters and we are happy with the results,” Tonglet said. “This is huge for us and our position in the points standings, so getting as many wins as possible is definitely our goal.”

Tonglet, who took over the points lead with the win, leads all PSM riders, having reached the final round in three of the first five races this season, and won all three of those.

The NHRA has an off-weekend coming up before returning to action July 6-9 at the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence; 2.  Doug Kalitta; 3.  Leah Pritchett; 4.  Brittany Force; 5.  Terry McMillen; 6.  Clay Millican; 7.  Tony Schumacher; 8.  Antron Brown; 9.  Shawn Langdon; 10.  Dom Lagana; 11.  Pat Dakin; 12.  Mike Salinas; 13.  Ike Maier; 14.  Troy Buff; 15.  Troy Coughlin Jr.; 16.  Scott Palmer.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Jack Beckman; 2.  Robert Hight; 3.  Bob Tasca III; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 5.  Ron Capps; 6.  John Force; 7.  Matt Hagan; 8.  Alexis DeJoria; 9.  J.R. Todd; 10.  Jim Campbell; 11.  Cruz Pedregon; 12.  Del Worsham; 13.  Jonnie Lindberg; 14.  Jeff Diehl; 15.  Dale Creasy Jr.; 16.  Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner; 2.  Greg Anderson; 3.  Jason Line; 4.  John Gaydosh Jr; 5.  Tanner Gray; 6.  Vincent Nobile; 7.  Jeg Coughlin; 8.  Allen Johnson; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Chris McGaha; 11.  Alex Laughlin; 12.  Val Smeland; 13.  Mark Hogan; 14.  Drew Skillman; 15.  Kenny Delco; 16.  Alan Prusiensky.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet; 2.  Matt Smith; 3.  Hector Arana Jr; 4.  Scotty Pollacheck; 5.  Joey Gladstone; 6.  Mike Berry; 7.  Andrew Hines; 8.  Steve Johnson; 9.  Chip Ellis; 10.  Eddie Krawiec; 11.  Karen Stoffer; 12.  Cory Reed; 13.  Joe DeSantis; 14.  Angelle Sampey; 15.  Melissa Surber; 16.  Angie Smith.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.743 seconds, 331.45 mph  def. Doug Kalitta, 3.736 seconds, 331.36 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.073, 311.85  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.601, 210.50  def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.824, 195.76  def. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS: 

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Clay Millican, 3.775, 311.63 def. Scott Palmer, Broke; Leah Pritchett, 3.760, 324.12 def. Ike Maier, 8.295, 105.60; Steve Torrence, 3.786, 326.32 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 8.501, 87.48; Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.98 def. Pat Dakin, 3.832, 293.60; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 329.99 def. Troy Buff, 8.421, 82.77; Antron Brown, 3.768, 323.35 def. Dom Lagana, 3.828, 322.34; Terry McMillen, 3.806, 323.04 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 324.90; Tony Schumacher, 3.789, 326.56 def. Mike Salinas, 7.129, 96.03;

QUARTERFINALS — Torrence, 3.792, 326.79 def. Millican, 3.872, 312.86; Force, 3.808, 325.53 def. McMillen, 3.859, 291.32; Pritchett, 3.848, 322.04 def. Brown, 5.187, 142.16; Kalitta, 3.782, 325.85 def. Schumacher, 4.099, 232.03;

SEMIFINALS — Torrence, 3.751, 326.08 def. Force, 8.630, 75.66; Kalitta, 3.768, 328.62 def. Pritchett, 3.800, 314.46;

FINAL — Torrence, 3.743, 331.45 def. Kalitta, 3.736, 331.36.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.993, 310.27 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 8.596, 84.51; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.913, 329.75 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.101, 307.65; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.349, 216.62 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 14.165, 61.22; John Force, Camaro, 3.930, 326.32 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Charger, Broke; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.942, 322.34 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.032, 318.69; Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.944, 326.56 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, Foul – Centerline; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.972, 324.75 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 7.528, 98.54; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.060, 319.82 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.180, 266.11;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.960, 324.44 def. Capps, 3.965, 324.83; Hight, 3.978, 321.73 def. DeJoria, 4.741, 180.16; Tasca III, 4.006, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.047, 301.00; Beckman, 4.078, 310.84 def. Hagan, 4.152, 275.06;

SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 4.074, 319.45 def. Johnson Jr., 6.049, 118.22; Hight, 3.925, 328.62 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Beckman, 4.073, 311.85 def. Hight, 6.673, 98.53.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.627, 209.43 def. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.595, 210.37 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.567, 210.64 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.676, 209.26; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.562, 210.50 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 14.694, 58.11; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.558, 210.64 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 7.790, 130.97; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.579, 210.70 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.759, 198.76; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.570, 211.16 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, 6.814, 203.52; John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.663, 208.01 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 7.212, 149.95;

QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.615, 210.73 def. Nobile, 6.687, 209.95; Anderson, 6.597, 210.90 def. Johnson, Foul – Red Light; Gaydosh Jr, 6.695, 207.18 def. Coughlin, 12.760, 68.65; Line, 6.585, 211.33 def. Gray, 6.599, 210.77;

SEMIFINALS — Butner, 6.606, 210.34 def. Gaydosh Jr, 6.701, 207.50; Anderson, 6.599, 210.80 def. Line, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.601, 210.50 def. Anderson, 6.581, 210.87.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Mike Berry, Buell, 6.950, 192.22 def. Cory Reed, 6.991, 189.31; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.43 def. Angelle Sampey, Foul – Red Light; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.853, 195.25 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, 22.220, 24.02; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.907, 193.74 def. Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.890, 193.93; Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.880, 194.80 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.915, 195.96; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.910, 196.13 def. Angie Smith, Buell, Broke; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.867, 194.69 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.16; Matt Smith, 6.849, 196.27 def. Joe DeSantis, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light;

QUARTERFINALS — Pollacheck, 6.905, 194.46 def. Gladstone, 6.904, 193.49; Arana Jr, 6.846, 197.36 def. Hines, 6.925, 193.02; Tonglet, 6.823, 196.22 def. Johnson, 6.962, 182.72; M. Smith, 6.876, 196.50 def. Berry, 6.916, 192.77;

SEMIFINALS — M. Smith, 6.872, 195.48 def. Pollacheck, 6.969, 186.30; Tonglet, 6.831, 195.08 def. Arana Jr, 6.863, 195.22;

FINAL — Tonglet, 6.824, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.882, 195.31.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS AFTER NORWALK:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence, 1,071; 2.  Leah Pritchett, 1,021; 3.  Antron Brown, 990; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 856; 5.  Doug Kalitta, 781; 6.  Brittany Force, 734; 7.  Clay Millican, 695; 8.  Terry McMillen, 477; 9.  (tie) Troy Coughlin Jr., 464; Scott Palmer, 464.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,095; 2.  Matt Hagan, 946; 3.  Jack Beckman, 855; 4.  Robert Hight, 809; 5.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 739; 6.  Courtney Force, 714; 7.  John Force, 683; 8.  Tim Wilkerson, 525; 9.  J.R. Todd, 508; 10.  Cruz Pedregon, 431.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner, 1,067; 2.  Greg Anderson, 941; 3.  Tanner Gray, 887; 4.  Jeg Coughlin, 820; 5.  Jason Line, 781; 6.  Erica Enders, 690; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 670; 8.  Drew Skillman, 575; 9.  Chris McGaha, 454; 10.  Allen Johnson, 448.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  LE Tonglet, 480; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 389; 3.  Scotty Pollacheck, 325; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 322; 5.  Andrew Hines, 317; 6.  Hector Arana Jr, 314; 7.  Joey Gladstone, 278; 8.  Matt Smith, 256; 9.  Steve Johnson, 219; 10.  Karen Stoffer, 217.

 

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.