Chase changes to reflect fans' wants
NASCAR Chairman Brian France left a lot of questions unanswered regarding potential changes for the Chase for the Sprint Cup format in 2011.
But that doesn't mean he's not listening.
While it would be difficult to argue with the success of this season's Chase — particularly when the closest margin in points since NASCAR's playoff system came into effect (15) separate leader Denny Hamlin from Jimmie Johnson — France will not take any changes lightly.
France still wants that "winner-takes-all" approach to the season finale.
"Watching someone not just have to run well, but have to beat other people," France said. "That is feeling to us like that's exactly what we want. And by the way, it's exactly what the drivers want. It's working out that way this year.
"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 their playoffs or their championship runs are what they want them to be. And we are no different. … 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.
"Whatever we might consider, we'll accomplish that."
France believes adding a greater "incentive-based" points system will bring those "Game 7" moments he desires. Since the start of the 2010 season, NASCAR has implemented uniform starting times for races and changes to the car to increase competition and add more manufacturer identity.
While attendance and TV ratings have not responded in turn with the most recent changes, France is still considering alternatives "for a better formula." Although NASCAR won't consider moving races to midweek, changes could come in the form of lessening the distance of races as the sanctioning body elected to at California with great success.
"We are looking at shortening races as we go along," France said. "We shortened California this time around; we think it made for a very good event. So on the margins, we'll look at when that makes sense to shorten certain races that we think will get a better competitive product on the track. We'll look at Nationwide events with that same thing in mind."
France also acknowledges that the sanctioning body has also backed off its heavy-handed governing in recent months. Certainly, allowing the drivers to take off the gloves this season with the "boys have at it" attitude has elevated the level of excitement each race weekend. And despite the harsh penalties levied on Clint Bowyer and the No. 33 team at New Hampshire, the kickoff to the Chase, NASCAR has avoided its longtime knee-jerk reaction of dropping the caution flag on a whim.
Though some pundits have accused France of being "out of touch" with the fans, that simply isn't the case. NASCAR has typically floated trial balloons with the media, but France has actively participated with focus groups to gauge the sentiment of his customers. Most recently, France sat with groups in Orlando and Atlanta about a month and a half ago.
So, what are the fans craving?
"We do have focus groups frequently, and I try to sit in on them," France said. "It's usually when we're testing a certain thing that we may be considering. What they typically like though or what they don't like is when drivers are just able to ride around and then say that a good finish for me can win a championship. They like this 'I have to win today' thing.
"That's what I hear from all of them, and that drives us to want to make sure that the rules are incentivized to that."
Despite certain drivers retaining large fan bases throughout their careers on past accomplishments and personalities alone, new and old fans alike are looking to gravitate to drivers that are up on the wheel and winning.
"I think those kind of performances lend itself to Denny Hamlin getting a championship shot," France said. "That's how any sports athlete gets a bunch of fans — he does something extraordinary. Everybody plays the game, but sometimes the big performances attract that level where I can relate to him or admire him. We see that.
"It's early, I don't know that we see more of that happen now, but logically, it will if we can have the kind of racing we've had and the drama we've had. That helps a lot."