NASCAR Championship format to change

Published 6:56 pm Friday, June 30, 2006

Brian France created NASCAR’s championship format to add drama to the title chase.

Three years later, he’s still not satisfied and plans to tweak the system again.

“What I have always said about the Chase was we needed a few years under our belt to see how it evolved, how it changed the strategy, see how the actual formula we have really works,” NASCAR’s chairman said Thursday.

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“Now we’re in our third year, starting to get that sense, and my view is we will make some adjustments going into 2007.”

France did not reveal what specific changes he’ll make to the Chase for the Nextel Cup format he devised when he took over the family business in 2004. His goal was to spice up a stale championship format in which winners were running away with the title and routinely clinching before the season finale.

He also wanted a playoff system similar to other professional sports, and a reason for television viewers to tune into NASCAR during the heart of the NFL season.

The result was the Chase, which uses the first 26 races of the season as a qualifier to set up the title run. The top 10 drivers in the standings automatically make it in, and any drivers within 400 points of the leader also are eligible.

They then compete over the final 10 events to decide the championship.

The first season was a rousing success, with five drivers mathematically eligible to win the title heading into the season finale. The next year lacked the same punch, with Tony Stewart using a dominating run to make the end result anticlimatic.

There were also several flaws in the system.

—Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, the sport’s two biggest stars, both failed to make the Chase last season and left NASCAR without a marquee name over the final 10 events.

—The 400-point mark has yet to come into play, so only 10 drivers have made the Chase each year. The current point standings show that is unlikely to change this season.

—Under the current format, a driver can be eliminated from title contention with one or two poor finishes — particularly at the start of the Chase. It happened to Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeremy Mayfield in 2004 when they were wrecked in the first Chase race.

Regardless, making the Chase is the new benchmark for defining a successful season. Greg Biffle learned that firsthand after making the Chase last year and missing it in 2004.

“If you’re not in the Chase, you’re a nobody,” said Biffle, runner-up to Stewart last season. “Those are kind of harsh words, but that’s what everybody wants. You get recognized. They talk about you. You’re part of the series.

“Those 10 drivers are the top level of the sport.”

France did not reveal specifics about what he’d like to change in the Chase format. Among the things he said he was considering was increasing the number of guaranteed spots in the Chase, changing the 400-point mark and possibly altering the points structure for the 10 Chase races.

“We’ll be looking at nothing new — everything that we’ll be looking at has been brought up by various people the last couple of years,” France said. “Just various things that we think will build what we’re hoping for, which are big moments and a bigger stage for the drivers.

“That’s what the Chase has always been about. It’s about showcasing their skills.”

Despite the lack of details about the changes, drivers were pleased to hear that alterations were coming.

“I still think they could do a bonus for the winners, the top five or 10, spread those points out to where it makes it more important to finish first, second or third rather than finishing 11th or 12th every week,” said Gordon, who won four titles under the old format.

But Gordon didn’t want wide-ranging changes.

“They don’t need to go too far off what they’ve got,” he said. “You start going to things like that and then we’re sitting here in a circus.”

Car owner Richard Childress, who has two drivers in contention to make the Chase this year, wanted to see a system that included more cars in the hunt. His teams had failed to qualify the first two seasons.

“I think what they’ve got is a pretty good deal, but I think letting 15 cars in would be good,” he said. “There should be some sort of system that lets guys in who win a bunch of races or something.”