DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR’s headquarters are in a 4 1/2-year-old glass building across the street from Daytona International Speedway.
Race team owner Rick Hendrick stands in the International Motorsports Center lobby, race team owner Richard Childress steps into an elevator, and NASCAR president Mike Helton walks down a hallway.
The tour ends in the office of Brian France, NASCAR’s CEO and chairman.
But it’s incomplete.
Where’s the secret room in which race winners are determined?
“I wish there were,” France, 51, says Thursday in a one-on-one interview “I wish it was that easy. No, there’s no room that we go to. But I will tell you this. We really monitor the racing action on social media and on our Fan Council. We grade every race. We’re really zeroing in on the idea that we have to get that right.
“There’re 43 teams trying to game us and lead every lap every minute. So we have to put packages and formats forward that bring out the best in all of the teams.”
He adds: “If we can figure out a way to equalize and balance the field in a fair way that will promote more passing, we will do that. We aren’t purists about that. And our competitors are more likely to say, ‘Well, that person got an advantage and should keep that advantage.’ We’re kind of the opposite of that.”
Purists amend rules. NASCAR rewrites them.
An example is the Chase. The new format expands the field from 12 drivers to a Sweet 16, eliminates drivers in three-race increments and puts a premium on winning. Win a race and you’re in the Chase.
The Chase was supposed to create playoffs. Now it will.
As France talks, he occasionally picks up his NASCAR credential with his left hand.
You need a credential?
“Sure I do, yeah,” says France. “I’m the first guy they want to kick out. They can say, ‘Look, we do our job no matter who you are.’”
Why change the Chase?
“Auto racing always has to have a heavy dose of consistency because, after all, there can only be one winner and 43 teams are out there,” says France. “But we got out of balance with that. We watched over and over again drivers get out of their car and say, ‘Well, our eighth-place finish was great for me and all that stuff. And they were not taking risks. They were not going for it at times when they arguably should have because there was no incentive to do that.
“This is going to change that dramatically.”
How have people in and out of NASCAR responded?
“We’ve gotten a loud but small group of fans who arguably wouldn’t like anything that we’ve changed,” says France. “We understand that. The vast majority of media has been really good and the vast majority of the drivers and the teams have understood why we’re doing it, what it means.”
NASCAR called each of its drivers to talk about the new format before the format was introduced. France called many of them. They then gathered to talk about the changes.
“Obviously, Kyle Busch and a couple others … feel probably a little bit like it’s a knock on them for not racing hard in the past, which is not true,” says France. “They do race very hard. But they also race to the format that we provide for them.”
France’s point: If you can finish eighth, and remain in position to make the playoffs, why gamble?
“Every race is a chance to punch a ticket to the playoffs,” says France. “It’s real simple. Just win and you keep moving.”
If, however, Jimmie Johnson punches a ticket to the playoffs by winning Sunday’s Daytona 500, couldn’t he cruise through the next 25 pre-Chase races?
France doesn’t anticipate that. He says that by winning multiple races a driver can enhance his seeding in the Chase.
“Plus the fact that their sponsors and all the rest expect them to run up front,” says France. “The prize money to win is still significant. And we think it may work out the opposite. If somebody gets a win or two or early they can let it loose. They don’t have to ride around and play it safe.”
He says that if a driver such as Tony Stewart, a driver who is a threat to win the championship, needs a victory to make the Chase, drivers already in might work to keep him out.
Speaking of Stewart: Richard Petty said that if Danica Patrick, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, were a guy nobody would know if she showed up at the track. On Wednesday Stewart challenged Petty, 76, to race Patrick.
“Well, my reaction – you can print this – is Richard was out of line,” France says. “I think anybody’s entitled to their own opinion. But she has accomplished a lot in her own right just to be here. She is a competitor and she is improving.”
A driver will emerge this season and we’ll all wonder where he (or she) came from. Who will it be?
“We have so many rookies (there are eight in Sprint Cup) showing promise and I think that the format favors now the underdog teams,” says France. “Because they can let it loose for one race and possibly get in the playoffs. And I think if you talk to the smaller owners they don’t think they can wear out Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon over a long period of time. But they think there’s going to be some races where they try some things and some strategy and they’re going to win and be in the playoffs.”
Last question: If there is a secret room where race winners are predetermined, does it feature a portrait of Danica and a mural of Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
“Listen,” says France. “If there was a Dale Jr. lever to pull, we would have pulled it a long time ago.”
Sorensen: 704-358-519; email@example.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen