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NASCAR shifting Chase gears

Could implement winner-take-all season finale

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A 16-driver championship field that would be whittled down to create a winner-take-all season finale is among radical changes reportedly being considered by NASCAR.

NASCAR chairman Brian France has repeatedly said he wants to place a greater emphasis on winning, and he's never ruled out tinkering with the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format in an effort to create the "Game 7 moments" he covets.

The Charlotte Observer first reported Friday night a possible overhaul to the Chase format that France first introduced in 2004 and has made periodic changes to several times since.

Citing anonymous sources, The Observer outlined three major changes beginning with expanding the field from 12 drivers to 16 -- meaning a win during the "regular season" would virtually guarantee a driver a spot in the field.

Once the field is set, The Observer said NASCAR is considering eliminations during the 10-race Chase.

The field would be cut after the third, sixth and ninth races. The proposed eliminations would drop the lowest four drivers from title contention after the third, sixth and ninth races, leaving four drivers eligible for a "winner-take-all" race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The four remaining drivers would go into Homestead with their points reset and tied in the standings, The Observer said.

A statement from NASCAR chief communications officer Brett Jewkes was non-committal on The Observer report.

"NASCAR has begun the process of briefing key industry stakeholders on potential concepts to evolve its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship format," Jewkes said. "This dialogue is the final phase of a multi-year process that has included the review of extensive fan research, partner and industry feedback and other data-driven insights. NASCAR has no plans to comment further until the stakeholder discussions are complete. We hope to announce any potential changes for the 2014 season to our media and fans very soon."

But driver Denny Hamlin posted a series of Tweets on Saturday afternoon that supported the format if NASCAR ultimately moves forward with the changes. NASCAR is expected to officially outline any changes later this month.

"This points system change is going to be a really good thing. Trust in it and watch how exciting each chase race is going to be," Hamlin posted.

Hamlin also Tweeted that every Chase race will now be as exciting as the September race at Richmond, which is the final race to set the Chase field. He also responded to two fans who criticized the format. One argued it was "artificially construed excitement" instead of the traditional consistency that NASCAR used for decades in crowning its champion.

"Consistency will keep you up top," Hamlin replied.

Hamlin received support from 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who replied on Twitter to him that he also liked the reported new format.

"Guess we may be in the minority here," Keselowski said.

NASCAR has been working feverishly behind the scenes to improve its on-track product, particularly at 1.5-mile tracks, and at least some changes are expected to the points system to meet France's desire to put a greater emphasis on winning. France was thrilled with the finish of the March race at California, where feuding drivers Hamlin and Joey Logano relentlessly raced for the win.

The two ended up wrecking -- Hamlin ended up with a broken bone in his back that sidelined him for more than a month -- and Kyle Busch slid through the carnage for the victory as a furious Tony Stewart nearly came to blows with Logano on pit road. It's that kind of competitiveness, compelling action and drama that France seeks every week.

Despite introducing The Chase in 2004, NASCAR has failed to create many of those breathtaking "Game 7" moments in the finale. The debut was successful as Kurt Busch beat Jimmie Johnson for the title by eight points, and five drivers went into the 2005 finale mathematically eligible to win the championship.

But ensuing Chases have lacked the same drama.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2014 B13

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