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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

Esteban Ocon secures Mercedes DTM seat for 2016

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
Esteban Ocon (FRA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C8733
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2015 GP3 Series champion Esteban Ocon will race in the DTM championship this year with Mercedes in tandem with a reserve role in Formula 1 at Renault.

Ocon joined Mercedes’ junior program in the spring of 2015 before becoming a fully-fledged member at the end of the year just days before his GP3 title success.

The Frenchman was known to be considering a move into either DTM or GP2 for 2016, but will now replace F1-bound Pascal Wehrlein at Mercedes’ factory team for the new DTM campaign.

“It’s an incredible feeling to be part of such a professional and strong racing series,” Ocon said.

“I’m very pleased to be driving for Mercedes-Benz. It’s the best team in the DTM and I’m very grateful for this fantastic opportunity.

“Mercedes is the most successful manufacturer in DTM history. You can only achieve that with real passion and hard work, and those are characteristics that we share. After driving in free practice during the final race weekend of the 2015 season at Hockenheim, I can’t wait to start a DTM race.

“I obviously have a lot to learn, but my goal – and that of everyone in the team – is to fight for wins as soon as possible.”

Trident completes 2016 GP2 line-up with Armand

2015 GP2 Series Test 3.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 4 December 2015.
Philo Armand (INA, Status Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _L0U4261
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Trident has completed its line-up for the 2016 GP2 Series season by signing Indonesian driver Philo Paz Armand.

Armand has previously raced in a number of European Formula Renault 2.0 championships, and most recently took part in half of last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 rounds, scoring one point.

Armand will now step up to GP2 for the 2016 season, racing alongside 2015 GP3 runner-up Luca Ghiotto at Trident.

“We are very excited to start this collaboration with Philo and we are confident he will express all his talent thanks to the team’s help,” Trident team manager Giacomo Ricci said.

The grid for GP2’s support series, GP3, is also beginning to come together for the new season following the announcements of Tatiana Calderon and Honda junior Nirei Fukuzumi.

Calderon moves into GP3 from FIA F3 and will race for Carlin, while Fukuzumi joins ART Grand Prix, continuing the French squad’s association with Honda.

Marchionne calls for Alfa Romeo to consider F1 entry

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  The Alfa Romeo 4C on display at the Vanity Fair Campaign Hollywood Alfa Romeo Ride and Drive luncheon at The Polsky Residence on February 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
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Fiat-Chrysler CEO and Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne believes that Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo must consider entering Formula 1 with a team in the near future.

Alfa Romeo last raced as a constructor in F1 between 1979 and 1985, but has enjoyed no involvement within the series since 1988 when it supplied engines to the Osella team.

Marchionne believes that a return to F1 would be an effective way for Alfa Romeo to grow as a brand and gain more public awareness.

“In order to restore their name, they must consider returning to Formula 1,” Marchionne told Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“Alfa Romeo are capable of making their own chassis, just like they are capable of making their own engine,” he added, before conceding that it could enjoy an engine supply from Ferrari should it wish to enter F1.

Marchionne believes that adding more manufacturers to the F1 grid is key to safeguarding the long-term future of the series.

“In the end this sport must be saved,” Marchionne said.

“The important thing is to make other car manufacturers enter grand prix racing.”

Grosjean unveils new helmet design for first F1 season with Haas

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Romain Grosjean has revealed his new-look helmet design ahead of his first Formula 1 season with Haas in 2016.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas won the race to get an F1 team on the grid back in 2014, and has spent the past 18 months meticulously planning its arrival in the sport.

Haas F1 Team’s full debut is now just five weeks away, with the first on-track test of its new car coming on February 22 in Barcelona.

Grosjean walked away from Lotus at the end of last year to join Haas for the new season, where he will race alongside former Ferrari reserve Esteban Gutierrez.

In a post on his Twitter account on Saturday, Grosjean unveiled his new helmet design for the 2016 season, featuring plenty of Haas signage.

Grosjean also revealed earlier this week that he would be racing with a tribute to Jules Bianchi on his helmet, who died at the age of 25 last July.