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Five ways to make the Chase better

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Less than three years into the Chase for the championship, NASCAR chairman Brian France wants to tweak his title-crowning format.

He's just not 100 percent sure what he wants to do to it.

France could widen the field to include more than 10 drivers, or he could reduce it. He might tinker with the way points are awarded, or he might place a larger emphasis on winning.

There's also an outside chance France might shuffle the final 10 races, giving the eligible drivers a variety of tracks to conquer.

It's all a mystery right now because France himself doesn't know what he wants to do. The only thing that's certain is that the drivers are praying he gets it right.

Since the Chase debuted in 2004, making that 10-race ''playoff'' has become the benchmark in NASCAR. The drivers who are in it get a shot to win the Nextel Cup title, make more money, get more attention and keep the sponsors happy with increased exposure.

Those who fail to qualify have nothing to gain except perhaps playing the spoiler and stealing a victory over the final stretch of the season. For them, next year is all that matters.

''If you're not in the Chase, you're a nobody,'' said Greg Biffle, a sideline spectator in 2004 who rallied to finish second in last year's Chase.

''Those are kind of harsh words, but that's what everybody wants. You get recognized. They talk about you. You're part of the series. Those 10 drivers are the top level of the sport.''

Since France is thinking about making adjustments, here are five that would make the Chase better:

Keep the field at 10 drivers.

Only the best of the best in any sport deserve a chance to win the overall championship. Yes, leagues such as the NBA and NHL have postseasons so large that teams hovering right around - and sometimes below - .500 can make it into the playoffs.

But NASCAR shouldn't head that way. Only the 10 drivers who have managed to overcome every blown tire, every brush with the wall and every failing part deserve to run for the championship.

Place a premium on winning, such as a 50-point bonus.

Some believe that any driver who wins a race should automatically qualify for the Chase. That theory has flaws because victories come in all shapes and forms.

One driver could steal a win by stretching a tank of gas, or a road-course ringer who only drives two events a year might pull one out. That shouldn't qualify them for championship consideration.

Consistency still needs to be rewarded. If the Green Bay Packers lose more games than they win during a season, they shouldn't make the playoffs just because one of those victories came against the Super Bowl champions.

But if NASCAR gave bonuses for winning, then Jeff Gordon gets in last year based on the 150 extra points he received for winning three times.

Make it a real playoff.

As it stands, all 10 drivers race for 10 races and no one is eliminated from contention.

But in reality, half of those drivers don't stand a chance to win the title after the third or fourth event because they've already fallen so far behind in the points.

The 2004 Chase had a dramatic, dream ending for NASCAR, with five drivers mathematically eligible to win the title when they headed to the finale. But last year wasn't nearly as exciting, with Tony Stewart simply needing a decent top-15 run to wrap it up.

So cut the field in half after the first five races. Those bottom five are out of contention, racing only for the monetary difference between the sixth-place payout and 10th-place earnings.

That format also keeps the excitement level over the middle stretch of the Chase, where interest has been waning the past two years. But if drivers are facing elimination after the fifth race, more people will pay attention.

Give the Chase drivers their own points system.

Yes, it will be confusing to follow for the fans in the stands. But the current scoring system, based on an entire 43-car field, isn't really fair.

All it takes is for one or two Chase drivers to be caught in a non-Chase drivers' accident to end a championship run. It happened to Jeremy Mayfield, Ryan Newman and Stewart during the Chase opener in 2004, and to defending champion Kurt Busch last season.

They all got points for finishing very low in the field, had to play catch-up the rest of the season and never contended.

So score points on a sliding scale to the Chase drivers only, 20 points to the top finisher down to two points to the lowest. It keeps everyone from falling too far behind and gives them a chance to get back into contention in just one week.

Change the schedule to offer a wider variety of tracks - including a road course - that test the skill sets of every driver.

Start with the final qualifying race by moving it to California Speedway, giving NASCAR the increased interest it wants in the Los Angeles market. Then open the Chase the next weekend under the lights in Richmond, Va., a short track that always produces dramatic finishes.

Then go to Darlington, NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, which is a bear to master but a test to a driver's true talent. After that comes the high speeds of Charlotte, then Talladega for an anything-goes restrictor plate race.

Next is Martinsville for another short track, followed by Kansas City, the road course in Sonoma, Calif., and another fast race in Atlanta.

Then close out the season with Texas and Homestead, Fla. in a schedule that offers a little bit of everything and hits many of NASCAR's best markets.