NASCAR must make sure new 16-driver Chase sticks

4 Comments

Change is a constant force in our lives that we cannot escape. But while change can be positive, it can also be negative – especially if they come one after the other.

Many citizens of NASCAR Nation argue that such has been the case regarding the sanctioning body’s willingness to continually tinker with its decade-old Chase format, which emerged in 2004 to redefine the way a champion is crowned in the top-tier Sprint Cup series.

The Chase has taken various forms since its original incarnation, which had the Top 10 drivers in the championship (and anyone else within 400 points of the leader) going into the 10-race post-season. But then came the tweaks – an expansion to 12 drivers in 2007 (with the 400-point bit dropped), followed by an overhauled points system and the addition of two “wild cards” in 2011.

Now, yet another change has arrived. As first reported by the Charlotte Observer earlier this month, the Chase has now officially expanded once more to a 16-driver field and will feature eliminations after every three races in the playoff to set up a four-driver, winner-take-all battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway for stock car racing’s biggest prize.

Depending on your viewpoint, NASCAR CEO Brian France is either to be commended on his persistence in creating a “Game 7”-style playoff environment like those of other sports, or vilified for craving it so much that he’s forgotten that NASCAR simply isn’t like any of the other sports.

We see France’s thought process and I would think that we all understand it.

The last thing he wants is to produce a boring product, especially with NBC Sports coming in to join Fox as the sport’s broadcasters in 2015. Then there’s the fact that the core NASCAR fan is getting up there in age – the sport itself may be at the start of a youth revolution (hello, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon; goodbye, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte), but that’s not showing up in the grandstands or in the TV demos.

Naturally, France wants to change that with a show that cannot be ignored.

The sport’s purists can complain until they are blue in the face, but society demands to be entertained (and considering that we’ve fueled the rise of the likes of Jersey Shore, the Kardashians and Justin Bieber, we don’t care how). If France believes this new format can entertain more people and help NASCAR enjoy another mainstream run like the one it had in the early to mid-2000s, then more power to him.

But at the same time, he and his colleagues need to put the hammers away in the toolbox and let the changes stick. This format needs to be in place for more than just a few years, because while change can be good, there are advantages when it comes to long-lasting continuity.

Too many changes can make the sport look desperate, as if it’s looking for the magic bullet that instantly brings back the days when NASCAR was part of the “Big Four” of American sports and drivers like Jeff Gordon were hosting Saturday Night Live.

You’d hope NASCAR would know there is no such thing as a magic bullet after seeing the much-hyped Danica Patrick struggle in her rookie Cup season last year or seeing the IndyCar Series continue to suffer with a miniscule national presence after American open-wheel racing united again in 2008.

Furthermore, too many changes agitate the loyal fans that have stuck around for decades and have remained loyal as their sport has evolved into a national phenomenon. There’s the balancing act of this change: Gaining as many new fans as possible without finally driving that longtime base away for good.

NASCAR shouldn’t be attacked for wanting to be more relevant. But it needs to understand that this new format has to be given time to make an impact and that it must resist the impulse to tweak it again in the near-future.

MRTI: Road America weekend digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

It was a packed weekend at Road America for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece through the weekend. It marks the third time this year that all three series competed at the same facility on the same weekend, the other two being the streets of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. And the tightly-packed weekend saw no shortage of dramatics, ranging from first-time winners to drastic championship swings.

Carlin’s Rise

Prior to the month of May, Carlin was enduring somewhat of a disappointing run this season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. A perennial front-runner the last two years and a championship winner in 2016 with driver Ed Jones, the British-based outfit had gone winless through the opening six races of the 2017 season.

However, that all changed when 19-year-old rookie Matheus Leist scored his first career Indy Lights victory at the Freedom 100, and the momentum appears to be permeating through the entire team.

Leist was strong again at Road America, winning Race 1 and finishing fourth in Race 2, while Zachary Claman De Melo took his maiden Indy Lights win in Race 2. Third Carlin driver Neil Alberico finished a somewhat disappointing seventh and eighth in the two races, but with two finishes of third and three finishes of fourth already to his name in 2017, the Californian is also building momentum of his own.

Race 2 winner Claman De Melo, who was all but speechless afterward, highlighted the overall strength of the team, specifically referencing his own engineer, who he described as a big influence on his development. “It’s such a great group at Carlin: from the team to the other drivers, we all push each other so hard. I’m learning from everyone on the team and I can’t thank my engineer, Matt Greasley, enough. He’s helped me develop as a driver to be in front like I was (in Race 2),” said the 19-year-old.

Zachary Claman De Melo scored his first career Indy Lights victory at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Leist, too, mentioned chemistry within the team as being crucial to their success, and is elated that race wins are starting to come their way. “It’s great to get wins now – I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together,” he said following his Race 1 triumph. “Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum!”

A championship run may be beckoning as Indy Lights begins its summer stretch. Currently, Leist ranks second in the overall standings, best of the Carlin group, while Alberico sits tied for fifth with Aaron Telitz. Claman De Melo sits seventh.

 

Consistent Kaiser Rolls on With Indy Lights Championship Lead

Kyle Kaiser might not have been the immediate title favorite at the beginning of the season. But, on the strength of one win (Race 2, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course) and five podiums, including finishes of third and second at Road America, Kaiser has asserted himself as the man to beat in the 2017 championship.

Further, the 21-year-old’s consistency is juxtaposed with inconsistency from some of his title rivals.

Aaron Telitz won Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg to open the season, finished second at the Freedom 100, and has four additional finishes of sixth or better. But, he has also endured three finishes of 11th or worse.

Colton Herta, winner of a pair of races (Race 2 outings at both the streets of St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park), has had a “feast or famine” season, featuring the aforementioned wins along with two additional podiums, but also with five finishes of tenth or worse to counter.

The aforementioned Leist, admittedly on a hot streak, started the year slowly with finishes of 15th and 11th at St. Petersburg. And Nico Jamin, with a pair of 14th-place finishes his worst placings this year, has also encountered some struggles of his own.

Kaiser, however, has finished sixth or better in eight of nine races so far, with his worst finish being ninth at the Freedom 100. Still, one cannot assume that Kaiser is choosing to play prevent while those around him sputter. As he explained after Race 1, in which he finished third, he is still on the charge and looking to get the best finishes he can.

“I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful. When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year,” Kaiser asserted.

As a result of his consistency, Kaiser holds a 28-point lead over Leist. But, with only 50 points separating the top six, the championship is still anyone’s for the taking.

 

Marvelous Martin Withstands Furious Franzoni Charge

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle in Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Perhaps the best battle across all three Mazda Road to Indy series came in Race 2 of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and involved title combatants Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, the Race 1 winner over Martin, was forced to start 15th, last on the grid, when a red flag prevented him from setting a lap time in qualifying, but he very quickly rocketed his way through the field, climbing up to third four laps in. He then took advantage of a restart to get around then second-place runner TJ Fischer before setting his sights on Martin for the lead.

Martin, however, was firm but clean in his defense and withstood every challenge from Franzoni to score his third win of the season.

“I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” Martin quipped afterward. “It’s hard, because you have that car in your mirrors but you can’t let it affect you. That worked out a lot better (in Race 2 than in Race 1). We will go back and work on a few things to find some speed and be ready for Mid-Ohio.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, tried to balance the disappointment of not winning against his impressive charge to second. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second,” he explained. “I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash. I had to pick my spaces, especially with guys who were battling with each other. It was fun.”

As a result of their battle, Franzoni leaves Road America with a slim seven-point lead over Martin.

 

Veekay Sweeps, Askew Hits Trouble in USF2000

Of the three Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda seemed to have the most straight-forward title picture. The dominant Oliver Askew, winner of five races in a row and with a worst 2017 finish of second (Race 1, St. Petersburg) looked all but unbeatable heading into the weekend, and there was no reason to believe his run would slow down.

And then the races happened. Camber shims on the left-front wheel became loose in the middle of Race 1, forcing an emergency pit stop for repairs, which dropped him to 17th in the finishing order.

Askew rebounded to finish third in Race 2, but Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) swept the weekend with two race wins, the first of his USF2000 career.

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An elated Veekay was beside himself over the success, which occurred at the home track for his team, Pabst Racing. “We’re so happy – it’s great to do this here, the home track for the team. I was screaming on the radio again! I’m so happy that we have the speed and we can really show what we can do.”

Veekay’s triumphs combined with Askew’s troubles to slice the championship deficit to 34 points between the two. With 30 points available for race wins and seven races remaining, the USF2000 championship has suddenly been blown open.

Indy Lights and USF2000 resume action at Iowa Speedway on July 9, while Pro Mazda returns at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a triple-header on July 28-30.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Alex Lynn to make Formula E debut in New York with DS Virgin

FIA Formula E
Leave a comment

Alex Lynn will make his Formula E debut with DS Virgin Racing in New York next month in place of Jose Maria Lopez.

Lynn joined DS Virgin back in January in a reserve role as part of an extensive racing plan for 2017 that also included appearances in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and at the Nürburgring 24 Hours.

The Briton angled for a full-time move into Formula E last year, testing for Jaguar, and will now make his long-awaited debut in the all-electric series in New York on July 15-16.

Lopez is unable to race in New York due to clashing commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Toyota at the Nürburgring, freeing up a seat for Lynn.

“I’m delighted to be racing for the DS Virgin Racing team. Formula E has always impressed me with its combination of advanced technology, iconic city center locations and some of the best drivers in the world,” Lynn said.

“We have a lot of testing and simulator work to do before the New York event, but I’m confident I can show what I’m capable of during my rookie debut in the Big Apple.”

Lynn will race alongside Sam Bird in New York, who opted to prioritize his Formula E duties over his planned WEC appearance with AF Corse at the Nürburgring.

Lynn will also be missing the race at the Nürburgring, but will return to G-Drive Racing’s LMP2 line-up for the following round in Mexico City in September.

From Castroneves to Newgarden, chemistry helps power Penske

INDYCAR
Leave a comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) As usual, Helio Castroneves took charge.

Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud came in early for their news conference after a good practice at Road America for the Team Penske drivers. Castroneves, still in his firesuit, picked up the microphone and started moderating the discussion as if he was a veteran announcer.

“You’re such a natural,” Pagenaud said to laughter. “The guy is great.”

Chemistry on and off the track has helped fuel Team Penske’s IndyCar success. All four Penske drivers are sixth or better in the points race, within 63 or less of leader Scott Dixon.

“Between us, yes, we want to kick everybody inside the team,” Castroneves said. “But we want to give the win, we want to give the championship to Roger (Penske). But we know in the end of the day, working together, racing hard … but fair, everybody’s going to be benefit from that.”

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is a headliner on another impressive IndyCar roster for Penske. Pagenaud is the reigning champion. Will Power is a former series champ.

Josef Newgarden is the new guy after joining Penske in the offseason from tiny Ed Carpenter Racing. Newgarden, who finished fourth in the series last year, is the first American driver on Penske’s open-wheel roster since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2007.

The quartet dominated practice and qualifying at Road America last weekend, with Castroneves taking the pole while his teammates filled out the rest of the front row. A large team allows drivers to share information, giving Penske an advantage over teams with fewer cars.

“We have on-board cameras, have data, have notes from the session. If you wanted to hide something, you just can’t,” Power said.

Added Newgarden: “Really, it’s like impossible. No joke. It’s 100% impossible to hide anything.”

Not that they seem to mind. The addition of Newgarden has appeared to be seamless since he replaced Juan Pablo Montoya. They poked fun at each other all weekend in Wisconsin.

Newgarden, who turns 27 in December, is one of the circuit’s up-and-coming stars. A friendly demeanor meshes well with Castroneves, the jovial veteran of the group in his 20th season.

“First of all, his talent, it definitely (suits) the team,” Castroneves said of Newgarden. “Well, his personality, it helps, too. He’s a guy that fits in.”

Known for his outgoing personality, the 42 year-old Castroneves seemed as energetic as ever at Road America after winning the pole.

“He gets faster as he gets older, like wine, matured,” Power said.

The drivers look like mischievous middle-school boys on a series of lighthearted videos produced by Team Penske. The “Penske Games” include activities like building a Lego race car ; saying the alphabet backward ; and twirling a hula hoop.

“All right, everyone, `Dancing with the Stars,”‘ said Castroneves, the 2007 winner of the reality TV show competition. “We didn’t have this on Dancing with the Stars, but it’s OK.”

Pagenaud looked mystified .

“Well, I’ve never done it,” Pagenaud said.

Newgarden swayed and smiled into the camera.

“It’s all in the hips. That’s what Helio would tell you,” he joked.

They’re much more competitive on the track and for good reason: All are in championship contention.

With Pagenaud using fresh tires, Power blocked his teammate around a turn in lap 15 at Road America. Race officials penalized Power and ordered him to give up one spot on the track.

“We were just caught up in things all day,” said Power, sixth in the points race overall. He finished fifth at Road America.

It was still a good day overall for Penske, with Newgarden finishing second, followed by Castroneves and Pagenaud. It was a reward that comes with the cooperation between the drivers, engineers and mechanics.

But Dixon spoiled the Penske party after the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran won the Wisconsin race. The series resumes July 9 at Iowa.

“It’s kind of disappointing that Team Penske didn’t get the win here today considering how strong all of the cars were. That’s the way it goes sometimes,” Castroneves said. “We’ll come back ready to go for Iowa.”

 

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

Photo: Getty Images
Leave a comment

Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

Follow Kyle Lavigne.