HOMESTEAD, Fla.—In Brian France’s estimation, the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format introduced this year has struck a perfect balance between winning and consistency in determining the series champion.
At the same time, France said, the new system, featuring an expanded 16-driver field and eliminations after every third race, has elevated interest in the sport.
“It’s exceeded what I had hoped for, and it’s done precisely what we thought we wanted to do, which was recalibrate competition—or winning, rather—and still have a strong place for consistency and all the rest, but recalibrate that balance,” NASCAR’s chairman and CEO said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his “State of the Sport” question-and-answer session with reporters.
“It’s only year one, but clearly we’re on our way.”
France said any changes to the format would be “modest to zero,” and he doesn’t have an issue with the possibility of Ryan Newman winning the Sprint Cup championship in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on ESPN) without winning a race.
“Well, we would like that,” France said. “The best team will win on Sunday. What I mean, though, is any format that we’ve ever had always has the possibility that somebody might win the championship without winning an event, short of us—which we’re not going to do—making it a hard prerequisite that you have to win a race to qualify. That takes it out of balance, frankly.”
Based on what he has seen through the first nine races in the Chase, however, France expects the eventual champion—be it Newman, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin or Joey Logano—to be celebrating in Victory Lane.
“I do think whoever comes out as champion on Sunday probably needs to think about winning the race,” France said. “I’d be surprised if one of those four drivers can get out of here with a championship, and what we’ve seen, if you go through past years, of how those teams will be elevating their game against everybody else, no matter what people say.
“You go back to Tony Stewart a few years ago. You go back to Jimmie Johnson when he needed to do what he needed to do or anybody else—-those will be the teams, and they were last weekend in Phoenix, too, by the way, those will be the teams that will be running up front most of the day. I think that, as Kevin Harvick said last week, he thought he had to win the race to get it done. I think that would probably be what you’d be expecting on Sunday.”
Though Brad Keselowski’s aggressive driving may have rankled some of his fellow competitors, France has no issue with the ramped-up intensity generated by the new Chase structure.
“I think he’s doing exactly what he should be doing,” France said emphatically. “I’ve told him that. Everybody has got a right to have their own style of driving out there. If you go back to any of the great ones—Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, all of them—they faced a similar discussion from time to time as they started to have success on the track, as some of those drivers believed a little bit more contact was necessary sometimes, and they were young and they were getting some words about that.
“But if you go through NASCAR’s history, that’s what we’re about. I say it all the time: late in a race, we expect—there are limits and lines, but we expect tight, tight racing that sometimes will have some contact. It’s in our DNA. I think he’s doing a great job of being aggressive.”
France also reaffirmed NASCAR’s commitment to its announced ban on discretionary testing in 2015.
“We like reducing the cost structure,” France explained. “We listened to the teams in our various team owner meetings through the last couple years, and I think we have enough in place to enforce the testing policy for 2015. We’ll see how it goes.”
The changes to the Sprint Cup schedule, which include a western swing early in the season and a return of the Southern 500 Darlington race to its traditional Labor Day weekend date, comprise another major positive for 2015 in France’s view.