France weighs tweaking Chase format

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR is considering tweaking the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, with chairman Brian France wanting to create more drama to the title-deciding format.

"We want to make sure [the Chase] is giving us the biggest impact moments it was designed to do," France said Friday. "Everything, to us, means pushing the winning envelope to mean what it needs to mean in our sport. We're happy with the Chase, [but] if we can enhance it in a pretty significant way, we may do that."

The Chase was one of several topics France covered Friday at Daytona International Speedway during a question-and-answer session.

Also under consideration are changes to the second-tier Nationwide Series that could affect the participation of Cup drivers, and scheduling requests made by track operators International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. for the 2011 season.

But it was the Chase that received the most attention as France admitted NASCAR is continuously trying to improve its championship system.

Introduced in 2004 as a radical new system for crowning the Cup champion, 10 drivers competed over the final 10 races of the season. The inaugural year was a smashing success, as five drivers went into the season finale in mathematical contention to win the title that ultimately went to Kurt Busch, who beat Jimmie Johnson by eight points in the final standings.

Two years later, Johnson began his run of four consecutive titles, even as NASCAR widened the field to 12 drivers and created a seeding system based on bonus points earned through "regular-season" victories.

Now, as NASCAR goes through a self-evaluation period designed to renew interest in a series that has suffered through sagging attendance and television ratings, changes to the Chase are again on the table.

France would not talk specifics, but in general terms, his ideas sounded as if NASCAR is considering both eliminations and tweaking the system to ensure that several drivers are in title contention during the season finale. In the past several years, Johnson has had to only preserve a decent finish to wrap up the title with little to no competition.

"We like a playoff-style format for sure," France said. "The big design is to have playoff type moments that only can be, in any sport, created when there's a lot on the line at any one moment. That's what the essence of Game 7s, eliminations and all that are.

"What we're talking about is enhancing it in a way that will bring out more of the winning moments, the big moments that happen in sports. And if there's a way we can do that, and there are a couple of ways, we're going to give that a lot of weight."

Drivers immediately questioned where NASCAR is headed.

"I believe that we should keep things as simple as possible," Carl Edwards said. "We should keep them the same. I think that if you change things over and over, and this is just my opinion, but if you constantly change things, then it makes it harder to believe in and feel comfortable with."

Denny Hamlin, considered the biggest challenger this season to Johnson's reign, seemed opposed to any tweaks.

"Why do we keep wanting to change chase format," he posted on his Twitter page shortly after France concluded. "if we haven't noticed already... the more we change stuff the lower the ratings get."

But NASCAR has always maintained that its Chase is a work in progress, and it will continually look at ways to improve that -- as well as any other aspect of the sport -- if it's in the best interest of the industry.

Although unlikely, it's possible, France indicated, that NASCAR won't do anything at all to the Chase. He compared the process over the next few months to what the NCAA recently experienced while considering expanding the field for the men's basketball tournament.

The NCAA originally discussed expanding to 96 teams, but when the idea wasn't well received, it instead expanded from 65 teams to just 68.

"We haven't made a decision," France said. "I think you saw that get played out with the NCAA tournament, as a matter of fact. A lot of things were discussed on their end. They ended up doing something that they thought worked for them, which was a lot less than they had originally considered.

"We're no different than that. It's their tournament, it's our Chase. So we'll look at what we think can make the biggest impact, managing the either unintended consequences or certainly the integrity of the format itself."