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Will Chase-Like Format Changes Add Excitement to NASCAR's Lower Circuits?

Brian France (right) celebrates the 2015 season with Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch.
Brian France (right) celebrates the 2015 season with Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch.Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Monte DuttonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2016

Brian France's tenure as chairman of NASCAR is similar to James T. Kirk's command of the Starship Enterprise: The third-generation scion of the ruling family has taken the sport where no man has before.

The chairman peers into the future.
The chairman peers into the future.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

He, quite obviously, isn't through.

"So the racing is good," France said Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway's motorsports media tour. "The tracks are on board. We've embraced digital and social media in a way that we're trying to be leaders in this area. We have young and up-and-coming drivers. We've got a format that we can build on for the next decade or longer."

The championship format is the Chase. It is going to spread. Experimenting will take place in new territory.

On Tuesday, France and his associates rolled out a new line of rules defining the conduct of races and championships in the two "support series"—it's a pleasant version of "minor leagues"—the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series. The changes were as shiny as a transporter unloading the new line of Chevys at the local dealership.

Premium sound. Fully loaded. All the options.

In other words, a Chase. Sprint Cup doesn't hold the exclusive rights anymore. When Thanksgiving beckons, and the NASCAR season comes to an end, three races—Cup, Xfinity, Truck—will again be run and in each, four drivers will have a square chance at the championship.

Set the bells and whistles aside for a moment. The Chase formats will be different in the lower series. Both chases will be seven races and three rounds, whereas Sprint Cup provides for 10 races, four rounds and 16 drivers. Twelve drivers will qualify for the Xfinity Series Chase and eight in Camping World Truck. Cup drivers who made the 2015 Chase will be banned from qualifying for it in the support series.

The question is whether or not an average fan, with a job and a family and a limited amount of time to pore over the details of NASCAR minutiae, will be able to understand what in the name of Junior Johnson is going on here.

While thinking about all this, it reminded me of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.

Who advanced in the Xfinity Series?

Who, What, When and How.

Who, What, When and How advanced in the Xfinity Series?

Yes.

What about Where?

Where?

Yeah. Bobby Lee Where. He didn't advance?

Oh, he advanced, all right. In the Truck Series.

I thought he was in the Xfinity Series.

That's his brother.

"We had a lot of great things happen in the Chase," France said, "and, of course, the second year [in its current incarnation], and a lot of people thought that an elimination-style format in motorsports wasn't possible, and it wouldn't work properly, and the reality is it's not only possible, it is the most exciting form of motorsports, rather, it's the way to crown the champion in the most exciting form of motorsports, and there's no question about that."

Wow. One sentence.

Kyle Busch outdueled Kevin Harvick at Homestead to win the 2015 Sprint Cup championship.
Kyle Busch outdueled Kevin Harvick at Homestead to win the 2015 Sprint Cup championship.Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Now it's Chase times three, and France couldn't be more thrilled.

"When we look at how successful the format [is] for the Sprint Cup Series, and the fact that the drivers trying to win championships in those lower divisions are trying to come up to the Sprint Cup Series," France said, "we know that the way to win in the future, you've got to beat people.

"You've got to be winning. You've got to be in the crosshairs of elimination at any moment, and that's how we want our young drivers, from a very early stage, to understand the racing-competitive style in NASCAR, so no better way to do that than to have our championship formats consistent, and that's one of the main reasons...that we did that."

As Gabby Johnson said in Blazing Saddles, "Ruh-ruh!"

Now to the bells and whistles. The Xfinity Series is getting a bell for four races. The Camping World Truck Series is getting a season-long whistle. Both are minor-league experiments, sort of like trying orange baseballs in Round Rock or aluminum bats in Salem.

In four so-called Dash 4 Cash races, the Xfinity Series will implement heat races as part of the main event. Those races are to be run on April 16 at Bristol, April 23 at Richmond, May 14 at Dover and July 23 at Indianapolis. Half the field will run in each of the two heats, and the results will determine the alignment of the feature, which itself will be shorter than previous series races at those tracks.

NASCAR is mimicking the type of format used in the Sprint All-Star Race, an exhibition, and, in turn, those used commonly at local tracks across America. It is also derivative of the format already used for the annual Truck race at Eldora Raceway in Ohio.

It's worth a try. If it works, it's likely to spread, perhaps first to the entire Xfinity schedule and eventually to Sprint Cup races.

The Truck Series whistle is a bit like a shot clock, only it's in minutes, not seconds. Until the final laps of each race (except the dirt-track race at Eldora), a clock will be activated, and if 20 minutes pass without a caution flag, one will be waved.

It's sort of a better variation of the "debris caution" without the invariable question of whether said debris is legitimate or not. It is scheduled. Reliable. Above pesky scrutiny.

It's a much cleaner way to trick up a race.

 

Follow @montedutton on Twitter.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.

 

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