NASCAR is poised to make major changes to its 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff, an overhaul that's already sparked widespread reaction in NASCAR Nation.
The new format is expected to be announced Thursday, and it's aimed at delivering a fresh dose of excitement to NASCAR stock car racing, whose popularity has leveled off in recent years.
Among the expected changes: increasing the Chase field to 16 drivers from 12 and putting added emphasis on winning races, with a win in the first 26 races of the "regular season" almost ensuring that a driver would make the Chase.
There would then be eliminations in the Chase field after the third, sixth and ninth races so that the 10th and final Chase race at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway would be a winner-take-all finale among four drivers.
The proposed changes have been floating around publicly for the last week, sparking a range of reaction.
Some in the media have called the changes gimmicky and argue that they discount a driver's consistency over the full season. But several Cup drivers said they welcomed a new format for the Chase, which was first introduced in 2004.
Denny Hamlin has tweeted that the changes are "going to be a really good thing. Trust in it and watch how exciting each Chase race is going to be."
Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth Cup title last season, told reporters at the annual media tour in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday that "we all know that change needs to happen."
"We need our grandstands full, we need the viewership numbers to be through the roof, we need our sponsors getting the best return on their investment," Johnson said. "It's certainly going to be exciting and shake things up and hopefully that brings eyeballs to what we do."
It's long been widely suggested that one reason NASCAR's popularity might have leveled off is Johnson's dominant record, which included five consecutive titles for the Hendrick Motorsports driver from 2006 through 2010.
Does Johnson think the expected Chase changes might be partly aimed at slowing his success? "It's crossed my mind; I'm not going to lie," Johnson said. But he added that he's won many Chase races in his championship-winning years so "this could be something very good for us."
The Cup season opens Feb. 23 with the Daytona 500.
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