NASCAR to leave championship format unchanged in 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) NASCAR won't change its new championship format, which chairman Brian France said Monday is ''overwhelmingly popular'' with fans.

The Chase was revamped last year into an elimination-style system that created a winner-take-all final race among four drivers. Kevin Harvick won the season finale at Homestead in November to claim his first Sprint Cup title.

France called it ''perhaps the best Chase ever'' and said the excitement will carry into this season.

''It's overwhelmingly popular with our most important stakeholder, the fans,'' France of the Chase during the kickoff to the annual NASCAR media tour. ''They (fans) like the fact that it tightened up competition. They liked the drama down the stretch. They like the emphasis on winning. And one of the things they told us that they really liked is the idea that we weren't going to change anything. And they strongly suggested that we didn't. And we're not going to.''

NASCAR launched the Chase in 2004 and tweaked it several times in the first 10 years. But it got a dramatic overhaul before the 2014 season, when the field was expanded to 16 drivers with four eliminated after every third Chase race. The final four drivers then went to Homestead even in the standings, with the highest finisher guaranteed the championship. The system worked in creating an eventful finale in which all four contenders raced for the win.

France said he believed the simple formula that did not require following points - drivers made the Chase by winning a race, and advanced through the rounds with wins - was embraced by fans.

''One of the magical parts of this Chase, and we want to make sure we keep it this way, is the simplicity of it: Win and you're in,'' said France.

One change coming into 2015 will be that NASCAR will no longer permit teams to alter their car's side skirts during a race, a widespread practice last season. Many crew chiefs believed the flaring of the skirts violated the rules, but because NASCAR was not acting on it, they were forced to manipulate the sheet metal to keep up with other teams.

Steve O'Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said cars will be brought back in if NASCAR sees the skirts have been manipulated during a pit stop. Policing the flared skirts will be done ''by any means possible,'' O'Donnell said.

Other topics covered Monday by France:

- Sprint is not likely to be replaced as title sponsor before its deal expires at the end of next season. Sprint said last month it will not renew its contract with NASCAR, but will honor the remainder of its deal. The last time NASCAR needed a new sponsor, when R.J. Reynolds said in 2003 it wanted out of its deal that expired at the end of 2007, the sanctioning body nabbed Nextel to take over in 2004.

''I don't anticipate anybody being in a position to leave early, but we'll get out into the marketplace and see,'' France said.

- NASCAR would like to have the 2016 rules decided and delivered to teams earlier than ever, and is eyeing the All-Star Race in May as a possible deadline. Teams received the 2015 rules last September, and the 2014 rules were not set until last January.

- France took a moment to acknowledge Jeff Gordon, who said last week this 23rd season will be his last as a full-time driver.

''Jeff is a friend of ours, a friend of mine personally, and certainly I don't have to tell you what he's done for the sport,'' France said. ''I don't have to tell you the amazing accomplishments on and off the track. From everybody at NASCAR, (we) wish him a strong final season.''

France has previously acknowledged that attention in NASCAR is increased when Gordon is a part of the title race. The four-time champion is one of the very few drivers who transcends NASCAR and is famous beyond the sports landscape. It will be difficult to replace his star power, but France said it's part of sports.

''The changing of the guard, that's always part of sports, part of NASCAR,'' he said. ''That's what you count on, to have great farm system of aspiring talent, hopefully of a diverse background, to let their talents and their abilities land with the Sprint Cup Series.''

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