A best-Chase scenario

Bigger field, knockout rounds among possible Cup changes

November 24, 2010|By George Diaz

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Despite the most dramatic finish in Chase history, NASCAR officials are looking to tweak the formula when rolling out the rules of engagement next season.

It's a intriguing call by the leaders of a sport that has suffered a decline in fan interest. There has been a dip in attendance in 26 of the 35 races leading up to the big finish in Homestead, where Jimmie Johnson came from behind to take his fifth consecutive title.

The possible tweaks include expanding the field from 12 to 15 drivers and adding "knockout" rounds that would eliminate drivers as the schedule progresses.

"The idea is to create big moments by the best teams at the end of the year that have to put their best performances forward to win it all," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said over the weekend. "If there's a better way to do that, I'm sure we'll consider it.

"Almost every league and tournament is taking a look at their playoff or format style. Some will do a little, some will do nothing at all and some might do something more drastic. And so I don't know what we are going to do, if anything."

Drivers have mixed emotions about whether the format needs adjusting, although a majority of the guys in the garage likely would agree with Johnson that the season should be shortened. File that under "not going to happen," even though it's an excellent idea. With tire testing set in two weeks at Daytona, there's virtually no offseason for anybody to decompress and get ready for another long grind.

One concession to time constraints might be to decrease the length of races. There were a dozen 500-mile races on this year's schedule. One of Auto Club Speedway's two races was shortened to 400 miles this year and was met with favorable results.

"At the end of the day, whatever we need to do to have butts in the stands and people watching on TV," Johnson said.

My quick spin: There isn't an easy fix. The problem has tentacles all over the place, from a tight economy to the homogenization of cars to a lack of true rivalries in the garage.

I loved it when Kevin Harvick tangled with Kyle Bush at Homestead and Harvick called him a clown. There's not enough of that snippy give and take.

But perhaps the most relevant issue is this: Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 27th at Homestead.

The sport's most popular driver isn't competitive. That's like the Yankees falling behind the Blue Jays in the AL East standings. The sport needs somebody for whom fans can cheer and jeer for at the same time.

It's too bad the NASCAR suits can't go into a boardroom and figure out how to make Dale Jr. run with the big dogs again.

gdiaz2@tribune.com

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