Right before the 2010 season ended at Homestead last November with Jimmie Johnson's record-breaking fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title and despite a tight battle for NASCAR's top trophy between three drivers, NASCAR CEO Brian France spoke about a possible review of the championship format as the sport tries to find ways of stopping the decline of its TV ratings in the United States.
NASCAR CEO Brian France © LAT
France mentioned at the time that he would like to consider tweaks that would allow the casual fan to understand easier how the champion is crowned, as every time you talk to a non-NASCAR fan about the Chase, the playoff format that determines the Sprint Cup series champion, the same questions come up: like why do 43 drivers compete in the races if only 12 are fighting for the title? Or what do those not in the Chase race for? Etcetera, etcetera.
France has also stated that he would like more winner-takes-all scenarios, even though consistency continues to be key to win the Cup.
The Chase has seen few changes since it was first implemented in 2004, following a season where Matt Kenseth claimed the title with an impressively consistent drive, despite having only won one race. The first year of the playoff proved a success, as there was plenty of drama until the season finale, where Kurt Busch claimed his first and thus far only Sprint Cup title. In 2005, Tony Stewart became the first driver to win the championship both under the old and new format and then Jimmie Johnson's era started.
For five years in a row the Hendrick Motorsports driver has been the Chase-master, and slight modifications to the playoff format have had little if any effect in either creating a more dramatic scenario or giving others a better shot a knocking Johnson off from his pedestal. In 2007, NASCAR opened two more slots in the Chase, bringing the number of title contenders up from 10 to 12. They also reset the points for all the Chasers to 5000, giving a 10-point-per-win incentive towards their seeding to any of them taking victories during the so-called regular season.
This last change, aimed at making drivers really go for wins and not settle for 'safe' points finishes, only has made a difference to those able to do a lot of winning, and even then, that cushion has vanished after a couple of races or even less entering the playoff in some cases.
Looking at Johnson's history of success, only in 2007 he kicked off the Chase from the lead, which goes to show that where you start the final ten races matters little. In fact, last year Johnson started from second and then slid to sixth after the first playoff race, before taking his usual place at the top following the third round at Kansas. He then lost his lead to Hamlin for three weeks later in the Chase, before beating him to the title at Homestead.
Johnson, unbeatable for five years now © LAT
Many possible ways of creating more drama in 2011 have been reviewed by now, including a new points system that would radically change what has been in place for years, a possible elimination format that would continuously narrow the group of contenders as the playoff unfolds, and also rewarding even more those who are able to win races.
Winning in NASCAR is probably tougher than in any other series if you consider that the races are longer, with more pitstops, more rivals and also more possibilities to either overtake or be overtaken. So it would be just fair to give those who manage to do so a fighting chance to become champions for example, or at least a better one than those who don't make it happen.
Looking at the stats from the past five seasons, the number of race winners hasn't been that far from the 12 drivers who make the Chase under the current rules, with 16 winners back in 2007 down to 12 in 2008. So having them in championship contention wouldn't be that far-fetched.
Last year, Jamie McMurray won NASCAR's two most important races during the regular season, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, yet he didn't have the consistency needed to make the Chase for various reasons. Would have he posed a serious threat to Johnson had he been in it? No, or at least that's what his Chase numbers suggest, but then only a couple of guys did.
Although the idea of having more race winners in the Chase would not necessarily spice up the title battle itself, it would be a way of livening up the regular season. There's rarely a fluke winner in Cup these days after all.
Consistency will still be a determining factor in the outcome of the championship for sure, and along those lines, it would be fair to reward somehow the driver leading the regular season right before the Chase. Kevin Harvick, for example, got little out of a bulky points lead last year heading into the Chase, which he started from third place due to the points' reset. Under the old points format, he would have been crowned champion before Homestead.
Although we'll have to wait for NASCAR to reveal any possible changes on this regard, there are some that we already know about and which will shake things up a little in different areas. On the technical side the Sprint Cup cars have received a face-lift for 2011, ditching the previous adjustable front splitter and its metal braces for one with a fixed smaller flat area that affects the inherent balance of the car, at least slightly.
The 2011 kicks off at Daytona
This is something we may not see having much of an effect at Daytona as it may be the case at the intermediate tracks, but initially the new nose has been said to shift the aero balance more towards the front, as since the current generation of car was born, one of the toughest tasks for drivers and crew chiefs has been to make it turn in the center of the corners. As with any technical change, like the switch from the rear wing to the spoiler last year, some teams will be able master it quicker than others.
As NASCAR goes green this year with the new Sunoco Green E15 gasoline, a mix of 85% gasoline an 15% Ethanol, fuel efficiency is also set to be affected and in one word, decreased, thus making crew chiefs start from scratch at tracks where the fuel saving game tends to play a decisive role. This, combined with how much degradation you have on your tyres when you're running almost empty, may create some interesting strategies.
Then there's the new rule for pit crews, downsizing them to six men over the wall, taking the catch-can man out of the picture after successfully implementing the move last year in the Truck Series. This man had the main task of holding a can at the rear of the car to take the overflow coming from the tank's ventilation duct while gasoline was being dumped in.
However, this crew member was also used to help make quick set-up changes at the rear of the car, placing a ratchet or a wrench in slots on the back window to make either spring or track-bar adjustments. As he won't be there anymore, rear tyre-carriers are expected to fill the role, but the new self-venting dump cans implemented have made filling up the tank close to half a second slower. However, as the season evolves, expect pitstops to return to the usual figures.
Brad Keselowski, the 2010 Nationwide champion © LAT
Another change we have learned of lately has to do with Sprint Cup drivers running in the Nationwide Series. For the past five years the second-tier championship has been won by Cup regulars on double-duty, sometimes even triple as a few like omnipresent Kyle Busch race also Trucks during the same weekend.
As you would expect, Cup drivers take some of the best cars available in the series, leaving up-and-coming young racers little chance to become champions.
This has contributed in a way to the lack of new talents at the top level, so for this year NASCAR has prevented drivers from running for more than one national series title, which means full-time Cup drivers will not contend for the Nationwide trophy although they can still race for victories every weekend. Nationwide regulars would then not be as keen to get into scraps with Cup drivers who have little to lose as they can put more on the line in their aim of winning.
Although there haven't been major changes in the driver line-ups of the top teams in the Sprint Cup - crew chief swaps inside Hendrick Motorsports being the most notable personnel move - there's plenty to look forward to in 2011 as another season breaks cover in a couple of weeks at Daytona.