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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.

Williams felt bad asking Felipe Massa to come out of F1 retirement

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams waves farewell to the Brazilian crowd during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 deputy team boss Claire Williams says she felt bad asking Felipe Massa to backtrack on his decision to retire from racing and return for the 2017 season.

Massa announced in September that he would be calling time on his 14-year F1 career at the end of 2016, making what was expected to be his final start in Abu Dhabi.

Massa’s departure freed up a seat at the team for 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll, who was due to partner Valtteri Bottas through 2017.

Bottas was released from his Williams contract after being approached by Mercedes to replace Nico Rosberg following the world champion’s shock decision to retire, announced in December.

With Williams keen to hire an experienced driver to partner Stroll in his rookie year, the team turned to Massa and asked him to come out of retirement.

“We are never going to put a driver in the car who we don’t believe can deliver,” Claire Williams told Sky Sports.

“As everyone saw even in his last race last year, he delivered for this team. He has lost none of his motivation.

“I know there’s a lot of talk out there ‘let the guy retire, leave him alone’ – he wants to come back.

“Little-known to me, I didn’t actually realize that he didn’t really want to retire and so I think Felipe is going to do a good job this year.”

Williams said she felt bad asking Massa to go back on his decision following the fanfare and tributes surrounding his final few races, but her fears were allayed when the Brazilian was receptive to the offer.

“Bless him, Felipe had announced his retirement, we had a whole fanfare around it, and then to have to phone your ex-driver up and say ‘would you mind coming out of retirement?’ you feel quite bad about it,” Williams said.

“But I’ve never heard anyone so happy and excited, so it was a big relief for us.”

Massa will return to on-track duties with Williams next month, taking part in the first pre-season test in Barcelona on February 27 alongside Stroll in the FW40 car.

Spectator dies after accident on opening stage of Monte Carlo rally

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Officials have confirmed that a spectator has died following an accident on the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday night, the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon slid off the route towards the end of the 21.25 km stage between Entrevaux and Ubraye, with his car blocking the course.

Emergency services were quickly called when it emerged that a spectator had been hurt in the accident, with rally officials confirming later in the evening that the fan had died as a result of injuries sustained.

“The Automobile Club de Monaco regrets to advise further details following incident of the car #4 (Paddon/Kennard) in SS 1,” a statement from the rally organizers read.

“The spectator was transported by helicopter from the stage to hospital in Nice. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff, the spectator has sadly died.

“An investigation has commenced into the incident and all involved parties will provide assistance to the authorities.

“Everyone associated with the event extends their deepest sympathies and condolences to the families, friends and individuals affected.”

Hyundai issued its own statement soon after: “Hyundai Motorsport is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of a spectator during the opening stage of Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday evening.

“The incident occurred at the same time as the #4 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC of Hayden Paddon and John Kennard crashed into the mountainside, after the car hit a patch of black ice at the entry to a left-hand turn.

“The team and crew have pledged their full support to the event organisers and authorities to understand the full details.

“Hyundai Motorsport extends its condolences to the family, friends and individuals affected.”

The stage was cancelled following the incident, with the rally resuming on stage two later in the evening. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville currently leads by 7.8 seconds from defending world champion Sebastien Ogier.

Paddon’s car has been withdrawn from the remainder of the rally as a result of the incident on Friday.

Gateway secures deal with Bommarito Auto for IndyCar race sponsorship

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 9:  Bryan Herta drives his #27 Andretti Green Racing Honda Dallara during practice for the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson 250 at the Gateway International Raceway on August 9, 2003 in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park’s return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule will feature a two-year title sponsorship from Bommarito Automotive Group, it was confirmed on Thursday. The St. Louis Business Journal was first to report the news.

The largest auto dealer in St. Louis will see its name on the race, now titled the Bommarito Automotive Group 500. Gateway’s return comes on August 26 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), for its first IndyCar race since 2003.

“We are pleased to announce that Bommarito Automotive Group will join Gateway Motorsports Park in the production of our inaugural INDYCAR event as the title sponsor,” Curtis Francois, Owner and CEO of Gateway Motorsports Park, said in a release.

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“This is a tremendous event for the St. Louis region and no one knows our town better than the folks at Bommarito. They are a progressive group, known for a high standard of quality and excellence. It’s the same standard of on-track action and family-friendly experience that we look forward to delivering with our landmark event.”

“We are excited to partner with Gateway Motorsports Park and the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said John Bommarito, President of the Bommarito Automotive Group. “When approached by Gateway about the return of INDYCAR to St. Louis, we felt it was important to have a major St. Louis company step forward and support the return of open wheel racing to the region.  We are extremely proud to be the title sponsor of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.”

Gateway will be the sixth and last oval race of the season, following earlier races in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa and Pocono.

Rahal wants to turn 2016’s unrealized potential into reality in 2017

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Graham Rahal likes to say “2016 was a year of tremendous potential.”

But it also was a year that some potential was not realized.

After a career season in 2015, when he finished fourth in the Verizon IndyCar Series and earning two wins and six podium finishes, Rahal slipped back slightly in 2016, finishing fifth with just one win and only four podiums.

So what does 2017 hold in store? If things go well for the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the tremendous potential of 2016 will morph into potential not only realized, but could result in the younger Rahal’s best year ever.

Rahal has the power, the car, the equipment and the personnel to make some major upward moves this year.

“We just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” Rahal said. “Obviously the cars aren’t really going to change at all (major changes are planned for 2018).

“I felt like speed-wise, our performance (in 2016) was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it’s pretty clear to see performance-wise, the team performed a lot better.

“However, we had a lot of things that just didn’t quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did. 2016 the bounces didn’t happen. We had to fight a lot harder, still managed to get a top-five finish in the championship.

“I think that I probably drove better last year than 2015. But hopefully the best is yet to come. As a driver you always have to be critical of where can you improve, where were mistakes, what did you kind of let go, you know, and where did you lose points.”

The 28-year-old Rahal is particularly focused on potentially following in his father’s footsteps of winning the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500.

In nine starts in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, the younger Rahal has just two top-10 finishes: third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. At the opposite end of the spectrum Rahal has four finishes of 25th or worse, including two last-place showings (2008 and 2014).

“We really need to improve at Indy,” he said. “That’s our main focus of everything this off-season. And also get a little bit of those breaks. You know, that’s kind of the goal. That’s what we feel like we need.”

The younger Rahal will also reunite for at least the Indianapolis 500 and probably more races with Oriol Servia, which should help upgrade Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s testing, race preparation and data sharing.

“Oriol is a clear plug-in for us,” Rahal said. “First of all, he’s a great guy. Second of all, he will help us. He’s going to help our performance at Indy. I can tell you that right now. And third, he’s been there so many times with the organization, he’s been in and out of the team a handful of times. He knows everybody. He’s been part of the team before. So it’s a clear fit.

“We need just a very experienced guy who can help lead us down the right path, and Oriol is going to be that guy.”

Interestingly, RLL had the opportunity to bring in a full-time second driver, but chose to go with the 42-year-old Servia in a limited number of races for now.

“There were several drivers who came to the team that wanted to run full season, had budgets to do it and everything else, and they were all turned away,” Rahal said. “The team is focused on making sure if there is the addition of a second car full-time, it has to fit the right environment.

“… We really are proud of the environment that we have, and so Oriol is a guy that fits that just perfectly and won’t upset the apple cart, so to speak. … He’s a great guy, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

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