Chase changes likely are a-coming
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- This might be your last chance, fans. Speak out now or forever hold your peace.
NASCAR likely will make tweaks to the Chase format for next season, although probably not changes as extensive as initially assumed when chairman Brian France said in July that the governing body was looking at ways to create a Game 7 atmosphere.
Officials likely will expand the playoff field from 12 to 15 and reset the points with two or three races remaining to guarantee there is another drama-filled finish such as the one we have going into Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
All you have to do is talk to drivers and team owners and listen to what France said Friday to understand that something is coming.
"What's really clear to me is when you put drivers in a position where there's a lot on the line, and they just can't have a good position and they actually have got to go out and win or lead laps or compete high, they do it," France said. "You're seeing that the last several weeks and I bet that's the case on Sunday.
"So that tells us that the more we can do, to have incentives -- an incentive basis and decide this championship, that puts it all on the line more often -- that's what we need to be thinking about."
But are these changes needed? Isn't what we're seeing with Denny Hamlin leading Jimmie Johnson by 15 points and Kevin Harvick by 46 proof that things should be left alone, that Game 7 scenarios such as this one should come naturally without gimmicks?
France will tell you creating this drama is "exactly what drivers want," even though Clint Bowyer started off Friday's media gatherings by saying, "I don't think they need to change the Chase." France will tell you it's what members of NASCAR's fan council and fans in general want.
When it was suggested that there are fans who not only don't want to see changes but would like to see the Chase eliminated, France scoffed.
"You met somebody that's telling you that?" he asked.
Well, yeah. Hundreds, if not thousands. Just read some of the comments from our readers.
"OK," France said.
Let me rephrase: NASCAR turned off many fans with changes between 2004 and 2007, from adding the Chase to the new generic car. Is there a risk of turning off more fans with additional changes, particularly with the way this Chase has played out?
"Well, look, I mentioned to you that every -- almost every league and tournament -- is taking a look at their playoff or format style," France said. "Some will do a little; some will do nothing at all; and some might do something more drastic.
"And so I don't know what we are going to do, if anything."
France then went on to make his case for change, saying he wants to simplify things for the fans so they have "incredible moments where the best teams have to elevate their performance."
It certainly sounds as if change is coming.
"That's what excites our fan base, and it excites casual sports fans who are going to look to this sport one day to enjoy as much as we do," France said. "If there's a plan for us to accomplish that, we will consider it over the winter.
"Right now, we are obviously thrilled with where we are at and looking forward to Sunday."
In other words, France doesn't want to announce any changes that will detract from this race. But change is coming. It could come by the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas, which would be fitting, given that this would be a gamble.
Does the reward of bringing in new fans who might get stoked about a winner-take-all scenario outweigh the risk of losing traditional fans who like things the way they are -- or were before there was a playoff?
There's no arguing with the point that the Chase has created more excitement at a time when the NFL and college football rule. If it weren't for the Chase, Harvick might have had the title locked up two months ago.
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But are gimmicks really the answer to create this every year? You don't see Major League Baseball looking at some crazy formula to make sure there's not a repeat of the World Series won by the San Francisco Giants, four games to one. The NFL doesn't panic when the Super Bowl is a blowout.
To France's credit, he doesn't seem worried about his legacy. He's doing what he believes is best for the sport, and he seems to believe a winner-take-all finale is best for the sport.
"It's that time of the year where these are the kind of questions that we get," France said. "We understand that we are going to have a championship that puts a lot on the line as it does now, that's credible and rewards the drivers that have the biggest performances throughout the season -- and whatever we might consider, we'll accomplish that."
But are these changes going to make a more credible champion in a sport in which consistency always has been the standard? The three drivers involved in this championship battle didn't mention expansion or resets when asked what changes they would like to see.
The only change they seem to want is a rotating schedule for the final 10 races. That is being seriously looked at for 2012 and beyond.
"I don't think the last 10 weeks should be the same racetracks over and over and over again," Harvick said. "It should rotate around. I think that would help particular race markets get better.
"You have it end at different places, have it start at different places. Maybe you go to some of the same racetracks, but I think a different 10 weeks, even a road course at the end of the year, would put that full diversity, I guess you could say, on your champion to getting to all the different styles of racetracks."
Ditto for Hamlin.
"Yeah, I definitely would like to change racetracks, switch it up a little bit," he said. "Maybe throw a road course in there. It's part of our regular season, why shouldn't it be part of our regular championship?"
Johnson had perhaps the best suggestion of all.
"A shorter schedule would be awesome," he said. "Shorter races, too."
Interrupted Hamlin, "Talladega, 10 laps."
Replied Johnson, "You'll have one hell of a race. A 10-lap race at Talladega. You won't have to worry about people [coasting] then."
These are the things that will rejuvenate television ratings and attendance. These are the things fans tell us they would like to see even if they're not sharing their thoughts with France.
That and stop letting Cup drivers compete for the Nationwide Series title, a change that apparently will be announced in January. NASCAR got the message on that one. Has the governing body gotten it on changes to the Chase?
"First things first," France said. "You know, we are not going to look ahead to 2011 'til this weekend is concluded because this could be a very, very memorable Sunday."
It likely will be.
But speak out now if you have thoughts on next year, or forever hold your peace.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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