Give new Chase for Sprint Cup format a chance

7 Comments

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

Malaysia planning ‘long break’ from hosting F1 after 2017

Pirelli
Leave a comment

Malaysia is planning to take a “long break” from hosting Formula 1 after deciding to end its grand prix contract early over spiralling costs, according to Sepang International Circuit chief Razlan Razali.

After previously expressing concern over the future of the race, officials at Sepang announced earlier this month that the 2017 grand prix would be the last in Malaysia, ending its contract one year early by mutual agreement with F1’s new owner, Liberty Media.

Speaking to AFP, Razali said that the increasingly unbalanced economic forecast for hosting the race made the decision to drop it a simple one, and that a return will not be considered for some time.

“Since 2014 the numbers don’t add up anymore, so it was quite an easy decision to not host Formula 1 anymore,. It was not difficult at all to be honest,” Razali said.

“Right now we are firm in our decision to take a long break. We are looking at a seven to 10-year break.”

Razali also expressed his distaste at ex-F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s recent admission that he overcharged tracks to host grands prix, believing it made Malaysia “look like idiots”.

“For [Ecclestone] to come out with that statement, we can’t help but feel suckered by him in some ways and quite disappointed,” Razali said.

“We thought we have a relationship. But I guess the reality is there are no loyalties in this business, it is all about dollars and cents.

“So with that statement, yes, it upsets us in a way.”

Vettel takes Russian GP pole, heads up Ferrari front-row lock-out

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sebastian Vettel will start Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Russia from pole position after edging out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stage of qualifying.

Vettel turned in a fastest lap time of 1:33.194 in Q3 to wrestle pole away from provisional leader Raikkonen, who ran wide at the final corner on his last timed effort.

The mistake appeared to open the door for Mercedes to continue its pole position streak, only for Valtteri Bottas to fail to improve, finishing third.

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton also had a session to forget, ailing to fourth on the grid, finishing over half a second behind Vettel.

The result marked Ferrari’s first front-row lock-out in F1 since the 2008 French Grand Prix, when Raikkonen took pole ahead of then-teammate Felipe Massa.

Red Bull finished as the ‘best of the rest’ once again in qualifying, with Daniel Ricciardo ending up fifth ahead of teammate Max Verstappen in seventh. Felipe Massa split the pair for Williams, with Nico Hulkenberg, Segio Perez and Esteban Ocon rounding out positions eight to 10.

Carlos Sainz Jr. had hoped to compensate for his three-place grid penalty carried over from Bahrain by reaching the top 10, only to miss out by two-tenths of a second, qualifying 11th.

Lance Stroll followed in P12 for Williams ahead of home favorite Daniil Kvyat, who struggled to impress in front of his home fans en route to P13 ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.

Fernando Alonso’s woes with McLaren continued as he lagged to P15 in Q2, finishing 3.3 seconds off Bottas’ fastest time. The Spaniard called it “unbelievable” over the radio as the issues with his Honda power unit once again left him off the pace and crest-fallen.

After changing chassis overnight and engine following FP3, Jolyon Palmer’s miserable weekend continued when he crashed out at the end of Q1, leaving him 16th on the grid.

The incident sparked yellow flags and prevented a number of drivers from improving their time, with McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne ailing to 17th. Sauber drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson finished 18th and 19th respectively, the former also spinning on his final Q1 lap, while Romain Grosjean propped up the timesheets for Haas in P20.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Sirotkin set for F1 practice return in Spain as Russia run is cut short

Renault Sport
Leave a comment

Sergey Sirotkin is set to get his next chance in a Formula 1 race weekend during practice for the Spanish Grand Prix after completing just two laps on Friday in Russia.

Sirotkin was given the chance to impress in front of his home fans in Russia on Friday with Renault, deputizing for Nico Hulkenberg as part of his test driver deal with the French manufacturer.

Sirotkin’s hopes of impressing the watching F1 paddock were dashed when a gearbox issue caused his car to lose power on his second installation lap, forcing the Russian to park up at the side of the track early on.

“It was a short run for me in FP1, but that’s motorsport and it’s better to have an issue with the car in practice than in qualifying or the race,” Sirotkin said.

“There’s not much I can say about today other than I was happy with the car at the Bahrain test and I was fully prepared to deliver everything required today.

“I’m next out in Spain so that’s where my focus now lies.”

“We got some good mileage on our new aero package today despite a tricky morning for Sergey which saw his session cut short after a hydraulic problem which then damaged the gearbox,” Renault technical chief Nick Chester added.

“It’s disappointing as we know he would have done a good job.”

Besides his Renault duties, Sirotkin has no full race program in 2017, having opted against a third straight year in GP2 (now Formula 2).

Honda in talks with ‘various’ F1 teams over 2018 engine supply

McLaren/LAT
Leave a comment

Honda is in talks with various Formula 1 teams over a possible engine supply for 2018 as it looks to reach beyond its current partnership with McLaren.

Honda returned to F1 as an engine supplier in 2015, striking an exclusive deal with McLaren that saw the famed partnership of the late 1980s and early ’90s be rekindled.

The championship-winning form enjoyed back then has been hard to come by, with reliability and performance issues with the Honda power unit leaving McLaren at the back of the field, currently without a single point to its name in 2017.

McLaren previously blocked Honda from working with other teams, but is now receptive to the idea, with the Japanese manufacturer talking to possible customers for 2018.

“From the start of this Formula 1 activity, we committed to support this Formula 1 society, so from that point of view it is duty and we have to support multiples teams,” Honda F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa said.

“Also we are thinking it will give us some benefit to have multiple teams as we will have more data and more chance to make the car running, so we don’t deny to have a second or third team.

“We are talking to various teams but at this moment, unfortunately, we have nothing to say here.”

Honda has most closely been linked to Sauber for 2018, with the Swiss backmarker outfit currently using year-old Ferrari power units.

Current Formula 1 Power Unit Supplies

Ferrari – Ferrari, Haas, Sauber (2016-spec)
Mercedes – Mercedes, Force India, Williams
Renault – Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Renault
Honda – McLaren