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NASCAR flirts with Chase changes as drivers battle to make top 12

KOONTZ LAKE, Ind. -- After a weekend that saw a dominating performance and unexpected victory from David Reutimann at Chicagoland, NASCAR gets a break before the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 25.

Weekends off in this sport are rare but in this case it's a necessity as the charge to make the Chase kicks into overdrive. The cutoff race for the 12 drivers who will make this season's Chase is Sept. 11 at Richmond, and while drivers such as points leader Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin appear safe, there are still some big names scrambling for the final spots.

Clint Bowyer heads into the break 12th in the standings, but is only 15 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.Mark Martin is 14th, 37 points shy of the top 12, and Chicagoland race winner Reutimann is 96 behind Bowyer. He is followed by Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and this year's Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray -- all big names that will have to use the next seven events to race their way into the Chase.

But as the battle for the playoffs continues, NASCAR Chairman Brian France recently revealed that there could be more big changes coming to the Chase.

When NASCAR instituted this format in 2004, the intent was to bring playoff excitement to the season championship. Apparently Matt Kenseth's 2003 title season, in which he clinched the Cup with one victory and one race left on the schedule, wasn't the kind of excitement NASCAR wanted.

The solution, NASCAR thought, was a contrived format where 10 drivers would determine the title over the final 10 races of the season. When some big names didn't make the cut, NASCAR expanded it to 12 drivers a few seasons later. It also included additional bonus points for victories in the 26-race "regular season." But no matter what the changes, the past four seasons have seen Johnson win the championship and pull away from the field with ease.

NASCAR is considering a "winner-take-all" format for the final race of the season after this year because it wants a "Game 7" atmosphere to determine its champion. But championships don't always go the distance and the fact NASCAR is once again considering making changes to the format proves that maybe this isn't the best way to determine a champion.

NASCAR is also considering making the Chase an elimination round with the field getting progressively smaller during the final 10 races to determine the winner-take-all finale.

"The more you narrow that up, the more you're making this a sport by chance," Denny Hamlin said. "It makes the first part of the season more irrelevant than it already is."

Tinkering with this format is not always good.

"I hate the constant change," Hamlin continued. "Nothing ever stays the same. Our sport was originally designed to crown the champion after 36 weeks and that is because this is a sport where if somebody else makes a mistake, it can cost you. No other sport, if another team makes a mistake, you're the one who benefits, you're the one who wins -- you win because of it. This sport, a competitor can make a mistake and cost you. That's why I think we originally chased this out into 36 weeks to make sure you brought it out into a long enough season to where the true champion was crowned every single year. The more you narrow that up and keep resetting points, keep adding guys, the more you're making this a sport by chance and luck is going to be a factor.

When NASCAR went away from the season-long points race to determine its champion to the current 10-race format, it was derisively called, "The Matt Kenseth Rule." Could this set of changes be called "The Jimmie Johnson Rule" as a reaction to Johnson's four-straight championships?

"Some of the wild and off the wall stuff that's been thrown around, I think we've got to be careful and not get too far away from what our sport has done, especially overnight," Johnson warned. "As we keep making small changes we can see if it's impacting our viewing audience and keeping people involved, but to go from one extreme to the other I don't think is all that smart.

"I know there is a crazy thought floating around about one race to determine the champion and I think through the garage, driver or owner, it doesn't matter who it is, everybody is thinking that's a wild one and wouldn't want to see it."

Jeff Gordon won all four of his Cup championships under the old season-long format. In fact, the Chase format has probably cost Gordon one or two titles. Despite that, Gordon seems confident that NASCAR will make the right decision.

"I like what we have," Gordon said. "I've always said that I would like to see the tracks change every year or every couple of years with those final 10. Other than that, I think that whatever they want to do, I'm happy with. I don't believe it's really going to change the outcome of the Chase. I think the strong teams are in there now. It just might draw a little of that bad luck factor for some guys that and we're speculating. When they come out with something and tell us what it is, I will be happy to talk about it."

Tony Stewart is the only driver that has won Cup championships under the old format and the Chase format. He wants NASCAR to make a decision and stick with it.

"I didn't think it needed to be tweaked the first time," Stewart said. "It honestly doesn't matter to me what they do. The good thing is that I have the confidence in our sanctioning body that whatever decision they make, if they're going to change it or whatever they do, something that will have been thought out for a long time and at the end of the day, they will do what they think is in the best interest of our sport. I have the confidence and believe in the leadership we have to be comfortable that whatever they do it's for the right reasons."

It's been said "Change is inevitable" but in NASCAR's case change may come too often.

In March, IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard called it the "most important decision of the decade" when he announced the ICONIC Advisory Committee that would determine IndyCar's "Car of the Future." Wednesday in Indianapolis, the new IndyCar will be revealed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a fitting venue for a car officials have dubbed a work of art.

The new engine/car combination is scheduled to begin competition in 2012. A variety of concepts ranging from the revolutionary wingless "DeltaWing" to more refined versions of futuristic cars that include front and rear wings have been considered, as IndyCar attempts to bring innovation back to the sport.

Bernard has even indicated that he would like to bring back the days of "It's a new track record" blaring over the public address system during Indianapolis 500 qualifications but it's unlikely series officials will allow the cars to get back to turning laps at 237 mph any time soon.

But this is another indication that Bernard is attempting to return IndyCar to "relevant" status in sports.

Earlier this season, Bernard stood on pit road at Kansas Speedway and when he looked up at how small the crowd was, he turned and said, "The reason I took this job is because those stands aren't full."

Bernard isn't afraid of making bold changes to the series, including blowing up the current schedule to create the schedule that best serves the sport. And when it came time to determining the new car, Bernard picked a committee of the leading racing experts.

But it may be re-connecting with the grassroots of American racing, that could prove to be his greatest challenge.

The series has an impressive collection of international drivers but with so few of them from the United States, it continues to fight for attention. But with a new car, an active series sponsor and Bernard's ability to "get it," IndyCar is making some progress to correct past mistakes.

Sometimes, the best way to understand what the fans see in a sport is to view it from their perspective, so after spending much of my career jaded by watching races in press boxes or on television from isolated infield media centers, I decided to be a fan this past weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Actually, I was more of a host.

Thanks to NASCAR public relations director Kerry Tharp, I took some friends of mine to their first NASCAR race. It was a chance to show the Crimaldi Family -- Jim, Sharon and their son, Marc -- exactly what I do, and after spending a day with me, they are probably as confused as ever.

Going into the garage area is routine for those of us in the sport, but for the Crimaldis it was a new experience. Photos were shot of cars considered to be backmarkers as much as the ones driven by the stars of the sport. And when it was pointed out that Mike Helton was the "president of NASCAR," Sharon Crimaldi sprinted after him for a photo as if he were Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After Tharp -- known in NASCAR as "The Commander" -- allowed them into the pre-race driver's meeting, they posed for pictures with four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and their granddaughter Lillian's favorite driver, Kyle Busch.

Yes, this is why fans watch NASCAR, because these bigger-than-life drivers can sometimes connect to regular, everyday people.

It proved to be quite a day as NASCAR gained three new fans. And for this media member, sometimes the best way to see the trees is to actually go into the forest.

While NASCAR gets a weekend off, IndyCar will unveil its new car on Wednesday and then it's off to Toronto for the IndyCar Series race. Toronto is one of North America's greatest cities and the Canadian street race is always full of action. But let's face it; it's a great excuse to spend the weekend in a city with great restaurants, entertainment and culture.

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