HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR is still considering changes to its title format even though this is the closest championship race in seven years.
“Right now every sports league, or almost every one, is looking 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,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We’re no different.”
France said this year that NASCAR would consider offseason changes to its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which debuted in 2004 and replaced the traditional season-long points system. Tweaked several times since it was launched, the system pits 12 drivers against each other over the final 10 races of the year.
Jimmie Johnson has won the last four championships and three times had his titles well in hand before the season finale. That lack of drama likely spurred NASCAR to consider more changes, and France said at the time he wanted more “Game 7” type moments rivaling those from other professional sports leagues.
NASCAR has had exactly that this season, with three drivers entering Sunday’s finale with a chance to win the title.
Denny Hamlin leads Johnson by 15 points, while Kevin Harvick is 46 points out. It’s the tightest final race since the Chase debuted, and Kurt Busch took an 18-point lead over Johnson into Homestead.
France is thrilled with how this Chase has developed, but said he plans to move forward on potential changes.
“We’re going to have a championship that puts a lot on the line, that’s critical, and rewards the drivers who have the biggest performances throughout the season,” he said. “Whatever we might consider will accomplish that. But, hey, first thing’s first. We’re not going to look ahead to 2011 until this weekend is concluded because this could be a very, very memorable Sunday.”
Drivers have mixed feelings on what they’d like to see to the Chase.
“I don’t think they need to change the Chase,” said Clint Bowyer, ranked 11th in the Chase. “I think the competition is closer than it has ever been. That is what we were lacking. Hats off to everybody involved in this sport. This has been a great year.”
The championship contenders were asked this week about their preferences. Harvick and Hamlin support a variation of tracks in the final 10 races. The venues have shifted slightly since 2004, but as NASCAR discussed tweaks to the 2011 schedule, the only change was moving Chicago into the Chase and removing California, which has had attendance problems.
“I’d like to see a little bit more diversity in the racetracks,” Harvick said. “I don’t think the last 10 weeks should be the same racetracks over and over and over again. I think it should rotate around. You have it end at different places, have it start at different places. Maybe you go to some of the same racetracks, but I think a different 10 weeks, even a road course at the end of the year would put that full diversity on your champion.”
Johnson actually deferred on Chase changes and set his sights on two other NASCAR issues: The grueling 36-race schedule that stretches from February to November, and an abundance of 500-mile races that stretch more than three hours.
“I think a shorter schedule would be awesome. Shorter races, too,” Johnson said.
France said such races are on the radar, citing the shortening of the October race at California this year from 500 to 400 miles.