NASCAR: Chase for the Cup to change
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson was stunned by the proposed changes to the championship format that NASCAR chairman Brian France laid out in a phone call two weeks ago.
The six-time champion did not believe he was being picked on by NASCAR executives grasping for any way possible to end his dominance of the Sprint Cup Series.
Instead, Johnson was taken aback because he had not heard the proposal before in multiple discussions with NASCAR.
“It just caught me off guard and shocked me, and I told Brian when he called me, ‘Just give me a minute to adjust, because I’m on my heels,’” Johnson said Tuesday.
NASCAR was to officially announce its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format today.
All signs pointed to a 16-driver field whittled down through eliminations to four drivers and a winner-take-all season finale.
It’s the fourth significant change to either the points or championship format since the Chase debuted in 2004. Johnson has won six titles, five consecutive from 2006 through 2010 and then last season, in that span.
Johnson’s not opposed to change. But based on conversations with NASCAR, he expected something closer to heat races over a four-hour television window leading into a condensed feature event.
“That’s the discussion that’s been going on for a few years, so I was shocked because I hadn’t heard a word about this idea or concept,” Johnson said. “I don’t think NASCAR is picking on me or trying to keep me from winning the championship. In conversations I’ve had with Brian and other NASCAR executives ... they like history, they like those big monumental moments. I by no means think this is an attack on the 48.
“I think NASCAR, they probably do care who wins the championship, but they are not laying awake at night wondering how to keep the 48 from winning.”
The Hendrick Motorsports camp seemed to be in favor of the proposed Chase changes, in part because it knows everyone will have to play by NASCAR’s rules in the end, anyway.
“Everything changes. Look at the Pro Bowl this year — they said if we can’t make it better we won’t have it anymore,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “Whenever changes come we have to be ready to adapt. It’s a lot to go through at one time. But the people that accept it and don’t get caught up in (complaining) about it, you know, they will be the ones that come out ahead in the long run because they will be more prepared.”
Hendrick also thinks a winner-take-all season finale — or any format that puts a greater importance on winning — may favor his drivers. He thinks it particularly suits four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s style. Gordon’s last title was in 2001.
“He’s kind of one of those guys that you get him in sight of the checkered flag ... he doesn’t need any motivation,” Hendrick said.
For Johnson, he’s on board because NASCAR needed something radical to re-ignite the fan base.
“I am really trying hard not to look at specific scenarios and just trying hard to look at what’s best for our sport,” he said. “We needed something big, and I don’t know if this is the bullet. I really hope it is, because it is a huge change.”