NASCAR must make sure new 16-driver Chase sticks

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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.

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.