Brian France wouldn’t go as far as to say NASCAR will make changes to the Chase in 2011. But reading between the lines, it sounds like that’s where they are heading.
“What’s really clear to me is when you put drivers in a position where there’s a lot on the line … and they actually have got to go out and win or lead laps or compete high – they do it,” France said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “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.”
Or more succinctly, France continues to want more “Game 7” moments.
While the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup has been the most competitive in years, the current format just doesn’t lend itself to a week-by-week drama. Yes, there were tense moments last Sunday at Phoenix when Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick used fuel strategy to make up ground on Denny Hamlin. But aside from that, most of the drama has been stored away to be unloaded entirely in Sunday’s Ford 400.
Whether Sunday’s race will capture the attention of the TV-watching public is yet to be determined. But to this point, ratings for the Chase – despite its competitiveness – have been down 21 percent. Part of that is because of a switch from network television (ABC) to cable (ESPN), a move NASCAR agreed to in its continuous effort to reach a younger audience. But that 21-percent drop is also consistent with the ratings decrease throughout the entire season, regardless of the network.
During his question-and-answer session with media at Homestead-Miami, France more than once mentioned that other sports – he highlighted the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and could have included Major League Baseball – are considering tinkering with their playoff format.
“Almost every sports league … is looking around at what they need to do to change their formats a little or a lot, depending on who they are, to make sure that their playoffs or their championship runs are what they want them to be,” France said. “We are no different.”
If change were to come, it could potentially include an expansion of the Chase from its current 12-driver field – and could include an elimination format. Would ESPN, which certainly has NASCAR’s ear, be in favor of an elimination format?
“If there was a way – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be elimination – to ensure that this type of drama [three drivers racing for the championship] happens every year in the Chase, where the emphasis on winning is enhanced throughout the Chase, then that’s certainly something we would support,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of programming & acquisitions.
For now, NASCAR and ESPN understandably want to keep the focus on this Chase. When it’s over, they’ll have to determine if it was good enough to salvage the current format or if 2-for-7 – the only other close Chase battle came in 2004 – leaves too much to chance.
Here are some other highlights from France’s media session:
• Expect an announcement in January regarding Cup Series regulars racing for the Nationwide Series title. France said this has been on their radar for a while, and NASCAR is working hard to secure the balance of the Nationwide Series being a feeder system while at the same time providing fans with an opportunity to see their favorite Cup driver race.
“What we don’t want to see is Sunday and Saturday homogenized, just completely homogenized,” France said. “We want to see Cup involvement, absolutely. Fans want to see that, buy tickets – we get it. We also want to make sure the Nationwide Series is, you know, helping us find stars that stay there for a little while, earn their stripes and move up.”
• Don’t expect the season finale to move from Homestead-Miami anytime soon – and if it ever does, don’t expect it to be held at Daytona.
“Daytona wouldn’t work from a spacing standpoint,” France explained. “It’s too close to February, and I don’t want to be sitting here with three or four drivers who think Daytona would be the place they needed to finish the season. We might have our hands full trying to manage that one.”
• Don’t expect a midweek race. France said that wouldn’t work for NASCAR fans, who travel long distances to races.