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.

Daniel Ricciardo to decide soon about moving from Red Bull to another F1 team

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LE CASTELLET, France (AP) Daniel Ricciardo says over the next six weeks he wants to decide between staying at Red Bull or joining another Formula One team for next year.

Ricciardo said on Thursday at the French Grand Prix, “It would be nice to go on the summer break knowing what I am doing.”

F1 is working its way toward its three-week break in August with speculation mounting that Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren are interested in luring Ricciardo away from Red Bull for 2019.

“I will be honest, everyone is talking about Mercedes and Ferrari as potential places for me to go, and I am aware that there will be interest from other teams,” he said.

The Australian driver has won seven races in his four-plus seasons with Red Bull. He is fourth in the standings behind leader Sebastian Vettel heading into the race at the Paul Ricard Circuit near Marseille.

Ricciardo’s stock has risen in recent months after his victories in Shanghai and Monaco. His Monaco win was particularly impressive because Ricciardo had to deploy some masterful defensive driving to protect his lead after losing an estimated 25 percent of his engine power.

Ricciardo said he had not directly spoken to rivals Ferrari and Mercedes, but he hedged when asked if his manager had.

“People talk, have coffees, I will leave that one open-ended,” he said with a laugh.

Ricciardo called the decision on whether to go or stay with Red Bull the biggest choice of his career following his decision to leave his native Australia and continue his racing career in Europe over a decade ago.

“For sure the priority is to get a car to win the world title because I really believe I can,” he said. “I am slightly careful because it is easy to think the grass is greener and maybe it is, but I also have it pretty good where I am.

“People do like a change but just to make change for the sake of making a change is not enough for me. I need to find some substance behind it to jump ship.”

Red Bull announced recently it would be ending its 12-year partnership with engine-maker Renault and switching to Honda motors for next year.

Ricciardo was hesitant to endorse or criticize the change, saying he was going to “try to keep putting the pieces together if it is a good move.”

But with the question of the engine manufacturer out of the way, Ricciardo said Red Bull would likely be looking to resolve its drivers’ lineup for next year.

“I haven’t been pushed yet, but I would say that there will be some movement in the next week,” he said. “Whether that is something that gets put down on paper (or not), for sure the discussions will start to ramp up in the next few days.”