NASCAR’s proposed changes to revamp its Chase playoff format by adding participants and elimination rounds and placing a greater emphasis on winning have produced a wide range of reaction.
Through social media posts, radio call-in shows and reader comments, one thing is certain over the past 24 hours: Race fans consider the changes to be a radical departure from the sport’s past.
Whether that turns out to be a positive for the sport will be played out once the 2014 season gets under way.
There seems little doubt that NASCAR – much like other professional sports have already done – is set to go all-in on winning as the predominant determiner of success, at least when it comes to its premier Sprint Cup Series.
“It’s definitely a game-changer,” Jeff Hammond, a former Cup series crew chief and now Fox TV analyst, told Sirius Satellite Radio. “We have continued to make refinements and changes but this one would be the biggest one in recent history.
“This right here will have NASCAR mirror all the other sports around with an official type of playoff.”
According to sources briefed on the proposal, 16 teams would make the Chase (up from 12), with positions first going to full-time series contenders who won a race through the first 26 races of the season. Should 16 drivers not win races, the remaining slots would be filled by the drivers highest in points.
Once the field is set for the Chase and re-seeded, the four lowest in points among Chase contenders would be eliminated from title contention after the third, sixth and ninth races in the Chase.
The four remaining contenders would enter the season finale reset with the same number of points. The driver who earned the most points in the season finale would be the series champion.
The proposal could still see some changes before its official unveiling later this month. NASCAR would not confirm the changes but issued a statement in which it said the sanctioning body had “begun the process of briefing key industry stakeholders on potential concepts” regarding the championship format.
NASCAR officials declined comment until the official announcement.
Reaction from fans took opposite tacks – social media posts tended to be negative, while callers on Sirius’ NASCAR radio shows Friday night and Saturday overwhelmingly supported the changes.
At least three Cup series drivers expressed their support for the proposed changes through social media posts on Saturday.
“This points system change is going to be a really good thing. Trust in it and watch how exciting each Chase race is going to be,” driver Denny Hamlin posted to his Twitter account.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, said he agreed with Hamlin.
Responding to the developing conversation on Twitter, driver Jeff Burton, who will become an analyst with NBC Sports, posted: “The millions of viewers of the Super Bowl seem to enjoy a playoff system with eliminations.”
The proposed changes appear to fulfill the often-stated desire by NASCAR Chairman Brian France to produce more on-track drama and “risk-taking” by teams.
The adoption of the Chase format in 2004 was a giant step away from the season-long consistency, which was the hallmark of Cup series champions for most of NASCAR’s existence.
Fans alienated by NASCAR’s departure from a season-long title race are unlikely to find much to like about the current proposal. The new format’s similarity to other playoffs, such as the NCAA tournament, could attract new fans, however.
“When you use the number 16, that’s a great number. It makes me think of ‘March Madness’ and the Sweet Sixteen,” said driver Kurt Busch. “That would be an elite group of guys that separated themselves.”
The current proposal would, for all practical purposes, emphasize winning races at all points of the season and it would be virtually impossible to win a series championship without one or more victories.
Will the format change much on the track?
A lot will depend on how teams approach the need for gaining victories. The format change doesn’t alter how races are run or how the cars perform – NASCAR is still considering ideas involving those areas.
The win-at-all-cost mentality could also tempt teams to attempt to alter the outcome of races similar to what Michael Waltrip Racing did in last season’s Chase cutoff race at Richmond, Va.
NASCAR, however, came down hard on MWR, which lost a high-dollar team sponsor as a result. NASCAR officials have a much more keen eye paying attention to these days.
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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