The new format of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship might not have been universally popular, but as far as NASCAR's chairman and chief executive officer Brian France is concerned it has done everything that the sanctioning body had been hoping for - and more.
"Naturally you would expect me to think that it accomplished all of our goals, probably exceeded them, in the balance between winning and consistency," said France, talking with the media this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway ahead of the season finale. "We always know in auto racing there needs to be both, but we felt strongly that by emphasising winning on the track, we might not have had that balanced correctly. We do now. We think that that's in a really good place.
"Phoenix was a great example of that, where one person in [Kevin] Harvick won the race, but another in Ryan Newman got there in more of a consistent model but got there nonetheless. How that all plays out, that's going to take some time just to unfold for all of us.
"It has a chance to be one of the most successful seasons in NASCAR history," he insisted. "I don't think there's any doubt about the level of competition that is up, which has our fans excited, and it has the interest level of the sport as a result of that higher, and that's precisely what we want to achieve.
"We're excited about it. This is a format that is not a one-time phenomenon. This is a format that when we've thought about it carefully, we realised this is something you can build on. This is the future for Sprint Cup racing."
That said, France agreed that this first season with the new play-offs had been a learning experience for everyone. "It's important to say that even though the format is relatively simple, what we're all finding out is the strategies that are associated with competing in this new format are different, and they're unknown and untested. I think that's going to take a while for even the most hard-core fans to fully get accustomed to how the flow of a season goes," he said.
France added that acclimatising to the new format was the reason why TV ratings had been slightly down this year despite the added drama of multiple elimination races over the course of the last ten events. "When it comes to what is a transfer race, who does it affect and all that, it's just going to take some time for this format, especially with the casual fans, for whom it's second nature to go, oh, yeah, that's a transfer race, these guys are in good shape, these drivers aren't and so on. That's going to take time."
While France didn't rule out making some tweaks to the format, he didn't expect there to be major revisions based on how things had gone in 2014. "I would say very modest, modest to zero," he said when asked what changes he was considering. "We reserve the right if there's a modest thing that we might make an adjustment on, but like I said, 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."
One of the criticisms that have been levelled against the new Chase is how it's enabled Ryan Newman to arrive at the season finale with no race wins all season while other drivers such as Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - with 18 victories in 35 races between them - are already out of the running for the title. But France said he was just fine with that outcome.
"We would like that - the best team will win on Sunday," he insisted. "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 [for the championship]. We don't think that takes it out of balance frankly. And so I think it's great.
"We have three drivers who competed and won; you've got one that didn't," he continued. "I do think whoever comes out as champion on Sunday probably needs to think about winning the race ... 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.
"If you get through those three rounds, and I don't care how you do it frankly, but if you get through into the finale on Sunday and then you beat those three teams, the other three teams, that will be an achievement for anybody, and I don't care how they sort of go in and out of the championship weekend," he added. "We'll be delighted if Ryan Newman and Richard Childress are able to pull it off. I think he's the underdog at this point, but they kind of like that, so we'll see how it plays."
France was also happy to defend Brad Keselowski, who has been at the centre of some controversial moves on the track in recent weeks and twice found himself embroiled in post-race altercations. But NASCAR's CEO wasn't about to reprimand the 2012 Cup champion for anything that had happened over the past couple of months.
"I think he's doing exactly what he should be doing," insisted France. "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," he said, adding: "I think [Brad] is doing a great job of being aggressive."
France also touched upon the subject of how NASCAR would be handling the issue of domestic abuse, in light of an allegation made against Kurt Busch by former partner Patricia Driscoll which is currently under police investigation. Last year another Cup driver, Travis Kvapil, also did not face any sanctions from NASCAR even after entering a plea bargain in a domestic assault case involving his wife.
A US congresswoman has criticised NASCAR for not suspending Busch from competition until the current matter is resolved, but France held firm on his 'wait and see' stance while at the same time pointing to a harder, more formalised approach to the issue by the sanctioning body in the future.
"We are watching that case carefully," he noted. "It's under review by law enforcement and others, and they have not made a decision on that regarding Kurt. So until they make some judgements on that investigation, it wouldn't be right of us to just intervene before they've even gotten the investigation completed. So that's our position: we'll respect their process, it's in their hands.
"It's a very sensitive topic today, rightfully so," he continued. "Not surprising that some members of Congress and other leaders might have some strong views on what we should and shouldn't do. But as I said, we'll stay the course, let the investigation be completed, and then we'll react.
"We realise the heightened awareness of this important topic, and our policies will reflect that," he added. "They'll reflect how serious it is. You know us well enough to know when we say that, we mean it, and we'll figure it out. But we ought to have a process that gets to the bottom of the facts before anybody does anything.
"[The first step] is there are charges that are levied against, in this case, a driver, and then there is a judicial hearing of some sort that would come after that. We're not even at the first stop yet. That's going to happen when and if charges are filed, and if charges are filed, that will change our equation, and we will look at that."
In the meantime and without any further dramatic developments over the weekend, Busch will be able to compete as normal in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale on Sunday afternoon. His Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Kevin Harvick is the favourite to clinch the 2014 Sprint Cup title, but will race stiff competition from Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin and Team Penske's Joey Logano.
And of course also from Ryan Newman, who could yet make history as the first driver to win a NASCAR title without also winning a race all season on the way - a feat which would at least partly be thanks to the new-look Chase format if it were to happen.
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