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Like a good stew, 2015 Sprint Cup schedule and new Chase format need time to simmer for best taste


The long-awaited release of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule was much less of the surprise many expected.

Instead of wholesale changes, we got only a few tweaks – a bit of shuffling around, as well as other traditional race dates being pushed back a week or two.

But for the most part, instead of a completely radical change of tracks and locales for both the overall season and – in particular, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – we got more of the same.

And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

NASCAR did what it felt it had to do, and by early measure, appears to have hit at least a triple, if not a full-fledged home run.

Sure, change is oftentimes a good thing. To shake things up and to throw out some old and bring in some new is one of the best ways to not only attract new fans, but also bring back old and former fans.

But at the same time, making change just for change sake – especially at such a crucial time in where the sport is today – would not be prudent.

Let me explain.

It’s no secret that NASCAR has experienced significant drops in at-track attendance and TV ratings for the better part of the last six-plus years.

There’s no question times have been tough for the sport and many, if not most, of its teams. Many have had to weather the most challenging economic climate they ever have. Some have even had to fold or merge with other operations because they simply could not continue racing.

That’s understandable.

But when NASCAR makes changes, it does so after extensive research and thought. Change is not made with a knee-jerk reaction or willy-nilly.

Think of the time and effort that has gone into things such as the initial Car of Tomorrow, followed by the Generation 6 car that is in use today.

NASCAR didn’t make those changes overnight. Rather, a combination of research, development, conferring with manufacturers, team owners, crew chiefs, drivers and even sponsors all take place before major changes occur.

In the case of both the COT and Gen 6, those developments were both two-plus years in the making before they actually made their debut in the sport.

Which leads us to this year’s upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup and Tuesday’s release of the 2015 schedule.

NASCAR as a sanctioning body, starting from the top with chairman/CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton and all other major officials, spent close to a year trying to come up with a way to liven up the Chase.

While NASCAR’s marquee event had become more popular as time proceeded over the first 10 years of its existence, to many there was still an intangible missing that prevented it from realizing all the potential that France, Helton and the rest of NASCAR officials had envisioned and hoped for.

As a result, yet another change in the Chase for 2014, the most significant and largest-scale change in the playoffs’ 10-year existence. Instead of 12 drivers, we will have 16. Instead of a playoff system based upon points, we’ll have three elimination rounds that will result in a one-race, four-driver, winner-take-all shootout in the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway in mid-November.

With so much on the line that the new format will be a success and will hopefully be that missing intangible that will attract more fans both in-person and in front of a TV set, it would be ludicrous for NASCAR to radically alter the schedule for 2015 without seeing how the full 2014 schedule – particularly the newly revised Chase – plays out.

Sure, many of us heard all kinds of schedule rumors over the last few months. Some were mild, like what came to be with Darlington moving back to its former Labor Day date. Or pushing the spring race at Bristol back two weeks due to often unpredictable weather in March.

Those made sense to do.

Other rumors we heard were radical, such as the Brickyard 400 starting the Chase next season, that a road course (at a track perhaps other than Sonoma or Watkins Glen) would be inserted into the playoffs, and that some tracks that currently have Chase races would not have them when the 2015 schedule came out.

Of course, that did not happen.

That doesn’t mean more changes will eventually come to the Chase makeup, but at this time, NASCAR has to look at the new format as a chef would look at a stew: you have to let it simmer for a while before you start adding ingredients or taking other ingredients out.

I still believe we’ll see the Chase schedule changed in the future, with different venues than what we currently have, perhaps after a two- or three-year period to allow for evaluation on what changes, if necessary, will be prudent.

But until then, NASCAR owes it to itself and its fans, and its fans owe it to the sport to see how the new format and the new schedule mesh.

And that will only come with time.

For now, I’ll give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt. To once again use the analogy of the chef and stew, NASCAR shook things up not on a massive scale, but just enough to give the overall season and the Chase a bit more flavor.

How it tastes – and whether it needs even more flavor – will be up to the fans.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Malaysia considers dropping F1 race: ‘The product is no longer exciting’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and the rest of the field at the start during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The future of the Malaysian Grand Prix has been thrown into doubt following comments from government officials and the CEO of the Sepang International Circuit, saying F1 “is no longer exciting”.

Malaysia joined the F1 calendar back in 1999 and traditionally held the second round of the season from 2001.

The race shifted to a fall date for 2016 so that the track could complete an extensive redevelopment program, meaning it was held two weeks after the grand prix in neighboring Singapore.

Sepang signed a new three-year deal to host F1 in March 2015, but doubts have been raised about hosting the race beyond 2018.

Circuit CEO Datuk Ahmad Razlan Ahmad Razali told the New Straits Times that amid declining ticket sales and a falling global TV audience, Malaysia was considering dropping the race.

“Maybe it will do Malaysia good to take a break,” he said.

“I think the product is no longer exciting. It’s being dominated by one team.”

Malaysian government official Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister of youth and sports, sent out a series of tweets supporting Razlan’s comments.

Jamaluddin also revealed that officials considered making the grand prix at Sepang a night race, but found the costs to be too high.

The 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix is scheduled for September 17.

With Hamilton non-score, Rosberg could win maiden F1 title this weekend in Mexico

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing in second during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will venture to Mexico for this weekend’s grand prix knowing that he could be crowned Formula 1 world champion for the first time on Sunday.

Rosberg has long insisted that he is taking his bid for the drivers’ championship ‘one race at a time’, and after finishing second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the United States Grand Prix, he is one step closer to a maiden crown.

Rosberg arrived in Austin, Texas with a 33-point lead in the drivers’ championship, meaning he could afford to finish second (and even third once) in the remaining four races and still win the title.

Rosberg battled back from a poor start to finish second at the Circuit of The Americas, meaning his lead now stands at 26 points with three races to go.

Mathematically, it means that Rosberg can in fact win the championship in Mexico this weekend, but only if he wins and Hamilton retires or finishes outside of the points.

Should Hamilton not score and Rosberg win, his lead would rise to 51 points with 50 remaining from the races following Mexico in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Rosberg has only been in a position to clinch the championship once before in his F1 career: the 2014 season finale in Abu Dhabi, where he lost out to Hamilton.

Naturally, Rosberg’s main aim in Mexico will simply be beating Hamilton on-track, having been left frustrated after failing to do so in Austin.

“I just feel that it’s a pity that it didn’t work out with a win this weekend,” Rosberg said.

“I was going for that. It would have been awesome here in America but it didn’t work out.

“Lewis did a great job this weekend, all the way through, qualifying and race so it just wasn’t to be.

“I’ll live with second place now and next race is another great opportunity.”

Sainz stars with charge to P6 at COTA, enjoys late battle with childhood hero Alonso

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR11 Ferrari 060/5 turbo leads Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Carlos Sainz Jr. produced one of the stand-out displays in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas to finish sixth, matching his best result of the 2016 Formula 1 season so far.

Sainz qualified 10th for Toro Rosso on Saturday at the Circuit of The Americas, but rose up to P8 in the early stages after Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas dropped back due to contact.

Sainz managed to jump Felipe Massa at the second round of pit stops to run seventh before Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen retired, handing the Spaniard fifth.

After seeing off pressure from Massa, Sainz went wheel-to-wheel with his childhood racing hero, Fernando Alonso, in the final two laps, but was unable to keep the McLaren driver back.

Nevertheless, Sainz was delighted to finish sixth, particularly when Toro Rosso predicted he would finish outside of the points.

“I think we put on everything we could do. Our predictions were P12 or P13 because [we were] starting on super-softs,” Sainz told NBCSN.

“But we made it last, close to Williiams, on softs, created a good gap to Fernando. We got a bit lucky with the safety car. Suddenly we were ahead of Williams and McLaren. With softs it would be difficult.

“We committed to go to the end. I did all I could until the end. I just had to hold on to it!”

Sainz’s result was made all the more impressive by the fact he was racing with a year-old Ferrari power unit that had been significantly outdeveloped by the rest of the grid.

“You cannot mind. The team and I are evident with how Fernando passed me – it was evidence was the second worst engine overtook us like they were the best one!” Sainz said.

“To hold onto P6 here, after this weekend, with the long straights was just amazing.”

The result matches Sainz’s sixth-place finish at the Spanish Grand Prix in May as his best of the 2016 season.

Lewis Hamilton ‘petrified’ of car failure throughout USGP

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton felt “petrified” of suffering a car failure during Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas amid memories of his Malaysia heartbreak.

Hamilton’s hopes of winning a fourth Formula 1 championship in 2016 were dented in Malaysia earlier this month when his engine failed while leading the race by 20 seconds.

Hamilton arrived in Austin 33 points behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship, having not won a race since the end of July.

Hamilton scored pole on Saturday at the Circuit of The Americas before a good start in Sunday’s race saw him surge clear early on.

Despite coming under light pressure from Daniel Ricciardo at the beginning and Rosberg in the closing stages, Hamilton remained in control to pick up his fifth USGP victory.

“This one feels great. I feel super chilled right now,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the race.

“It’s not an ecstatic feeling; it’s more mellow and relieved the car made it.”

With the memory of his retirement in Malaysia still in his mind, Hamilton was wary of another issue on his car rearing its head in Austin.

“The whole race I was petrified the car wouldn’t make it. I was dreaded by the sound I heard in Malaysia,” Hamilton said.

“Lose power, or a gear, or gearbox or something. It was weighing on me the whole race. It’s the longest afternoon but we got the job done.”

Hamilton cut Rosberg’s lead in the drivers’ championship to 26 points, but would not be assured the title even if he won the remaining three races of the season. Rosberg can be assured of the title with two seconds places and a third.

However, Hamilton isn’t dwelling on the points permutations: “I just want my car to keep going! But I need to do the job. I can’t control what happens with these guys. This is a relatively easy feat. Staying ahead and winning races is my target.”