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

F1 2017 driver review: Carlos Sainz Jr.

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Carlos Sainz Jr.

Teams: Scuderia Toro Rosso (1-16), Renault (17-20)
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P4 (Singapore)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 54
Championship Position: 9th

Carlos Sainz Jr. has always been compared to Max Verstappen given their relative rise and stint together at Toro Rosso, but the Spaniard began to forge his own impressive path through 2017, securing himself a works drive with Renault in the process.

Alongside the struggling Daniil Kvyat for much of the season, Sainz led Toro Rosso’s charge, scoring 48 of its 53 points with a string of impressive drives. His headline moment came in Singapore when he matched Verstappen’s best result in Toro Rosso colors by finishing fourth, capitalizing on the start-line crash and the wet weather with a strong display.

Sainz’s displays led to a call from Renault, who announced just two days before his star display in Singapore he would be joining up for 2018 on loan from Red Bull. However, the deal was accelerated after a deal was brokered to secure Jolyon Palmer’s departure, allowing Sainz to join up from the United States GP onwards.

Sainz made an immediate impression, completing a perfect race en route to seventh on debut for Renault to secure six points that would prove crucial in the final constructors’ championship standings as the French team beat Toro Rosso to P6 in the standings at the last race of the year.

Red Bull retains an option on Sainz’s future beyond 2018, making him a candidate for a seat with its senior team should Daniel Ricciardo opt to leave. Failing that, Renault could offer Sainz the platform he needs to continue his rapid rise in F1 and establish himself at the front of the pack for many years to come.

Season High: Finishing fourth in Singapore after dodging the start-line drama.

Season Low: Crashing out in his final Toro Rosso appearance on the first lap at Suzuka.