NASCAR is overhauling its playoff system to create a winner-take-all final race. The sport's executives announced the changes Thursday in Charlotte. It'll make NASCAR's postseason simpler and more similar to other professional sports.
NASCAR CEO Brian France said the overhaul comes down to this:
“Everything is focused on winning, and that's exactly what our fans want,” he said.
Now the only way to guarantee you make the playoffs in NASCAR is to win a regular season race. If you win, you're in.
France said that's way simpler than the old points system, and it should be. NASCAR casually calls its playoffs the Chase, and you used to get in by racing consistently – it didn't matter if you won, as long as you were top 10 pretty often.
“The casual fans don't understand points racing,” he said. “You got to have a computer next to you to figure out who's in and who's out at a given moment.”
So the playoffs will be simpler, too. There'll be four rounds, and drivers will be eliminated each round. The four left at the end will compete in a sort of Super Bowl that's the last race of the season. The first one to cross the finish line wins. (And to be clear, all of these races will still include the regular number of drivers.)
It'll make NASCAR's Chase more similar to playoffs in other sports. Driver Kurt Busch isn’t sure if that's a good thing.
“In 2004, the Chase was implemented with the thought of trying to create a playoff format or an atmosphere that is similar to other types of sports that are mainstream,” he said. “NASCAR is mainstream.”
So Busch asked, do we need to be so influenced by the media, fans and other sports?
Fellow driver Danica Patrick said, we do.
“At the end of the day, it's all about our fans and it's getting people to watch so that our sponsors are happy, that people are watching on TV, millions of millions of people, that's what drives the sport,” she said.
TV ratings and attendance at many of the premier tracks have been down substantially since NASCAR peaked in popularity in 2005.
Brad Keselowski, who won the Chase two years ago, said NASCAR is acknowledging it has to adapt.
“And if we stay stagnant as a sport, none of us our going to have any jobs,” he said. “And we can always argue about what's the proper way to grow, but as long as we can acknowledge that the sport has to change, I think we can find common ground that way.”
This particular change is NASCAR's biggest move since 1979, when it signed a contract for its first live broadcast of the Daytona 500, said one of the guys who signed that contract, former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson.
“I mean, it is of that stature,” he said. “I think NASCAR is taking a huge step forward here. I think it will draw an increased audience, and I think it will draw new people.”
Pilson said it'll be easier to attract casual fans because the format will be easier to understand.
One driver you'd think might not be a fan of the changes is the guy who's mastered the old system- six-time champion Jimmie Johnson. A reporter asked him if it feels like the changes are an attempt to stop him from winning.
“It’s crossed my mind, I'm not going to lie,” he said with a laugh.
But Johnson said the changes should still result in one of the top drivers taking the title - not necessarily the most consistent one, but certainly one of the best.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. echoed that message. And he had one of the best lines about the changes.
“I wasn't really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening and you kind of had to get used to it,” he said with a laugh. “But now let's change it all. I'm all for it.”
He said it should be fun for the fans and the drivers. If so, that'll make the racetrack executives happy, too.
At an event uptown this week, Jerry Caldwell of Bristol Motor Speedway said the new system will make each of their races a bigger deal.
“You buy tickets to watch races – we need these guys focused on that race and needing to win that race to get into the Chase,” he said.
The head of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Marcus Smith, agreed.
“Really hard-nosed racing, guys are going for the trophy, there is going to be one winner and 42 losers, and I think that's what NASCAR is really accentuating come this season,” he said.
In fact, NASCAR CEO Brian France said he wants this to lead to more aggressive racing.
“We expect some contact,” he said. “Obviously there are limits. But that's always part of NASCAR, some version of contact late in the race. Will this bring more of that? I'm sure it will, to some level, but that's NASCAR.”
And NASCAR officials may have to work harder to make sure no one crosses that line.