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One of America's major professional sports is overhauling its playoff system after declines in attendance and TV ratings. NASCAR is rolling out the changes this season. It's also altering how drivers qualify for the playoffs. Executives say that should make the regular season more exciting, starting with this weekend's Daytona 500. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.
MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: NASCAR's old point system was a mathematical labyrinth that was all about consistency. Drivers didn't have to actually win a race to make the playoffs as long as they were in the top 10 pretty often.
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TOMSIC: During this race at Richmond last year, listen to the announcers keep track of the playoff picture.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Joey Logano still barely clinging to that 10th spot in points, but he's 25th two laps down. Jeff Gordon only two points behind him.
TOMSIC: Even NASCAR CEO Brian France has joked fans need a computer next to them to figure it out. Now, France says it'll be simple. To make the playoffs, a driver basically needs to win a regular season race.
BRIAN FRANCE: We now have arrived at a format that makes every race matter more. It'll promote compelling competition for wins all season long.
TOMSIC: And it'll finish with a sort of Super Bowl, in which there's still a full field of drivers, but only four of them will be racing for the championship. The first of those four to cross the finish line, wins. It'll make NASCAR's playoffs, casually called the Chase, more like other sports. Driver Kurt Busch isn't sure if that's a good thing.
KURT BUSCH: 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. And NASCAR is mainstream.
TOMSIC: So Busch asked: Do we need to be so influenced by the media, fans, and other sports? Fellow driver Danica Patrick says we do.
DANICA PATRICK: 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 who are watching on TV, millions and millions of people. That's what drives the sport.
TOMSIC: TV ratings and attendance at many of the premier tracks have dropped significantly since they peaked in the mid-2000s. Brad Keselowski, who won the Chase two years ago, says NASCAR has to adapt.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: And if we stay stagnant as a sport, none of us are going to have any jobs. And we can, I think, 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.
TOMSIC: A former president of CBS Sports, Neal Pilson, says this particular change will make it much easier for NASCAR to attract casual fans. He says the old playoff system was too complicated.
NEAL PILSON: I don't think it built the kind of excitement that you see in playoff formats for the major leagues, baseball, NFL. But I think the new Chase format is a very positive variable, and I think it will definitely help with TV ratings and viewership.
TOMSIC: One guy you'd think might not be a fan of the changes is the driver who's mastered the old system - six-time champion Jimmie Johnson. A reporter asked if this feels like an attempt to stop him from winning.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's crossed my mind. I'm not going to lie.
TOMSIC: But Johnson says 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. At a preseason event in Charlotte, some racetrack executives said the overhaul should help them sell tickets. Chris Powell is general manager of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
CHRIS POWELL: The fan knows when he comes to the race that whoever wins that race is going to be in the Sprint Cup Chase for the championship. And that's a big deal.
TOMSIC: Such a big deal that NASCAR CEO Brian France expects more drivers banging fenders as they go for the win.
FRANCE: We expect some contact. Will this bring more of that? I'm sure it will, to some level, but that's NASCAR.
TOMSIC: But could that lead to more wrecks and injuries? A NASCAR executive says race officials will have to work harder to regulate the action, starting with the Daytona 500 this Sunday. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.
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