In another attempt to create end-of-season drama, Nascar announced today the overhaul of its playoff format, essentially placing the entire championship on the outcome of one race.
The playoff field will be expanded from 12 drivers to 16. After the first 26 races of the season, those 16 drivers will compete in 10 races called the Nascar Chase Grid. Four drivers will be cut every three races, until there are just four remaining in a final, winner-take-all race: the Nascar Sprint Cup Championship.
Nascar drivers and writers alike have dismissed the changes as a misguided attempt to create "Game 7 moments." The new format puts a premium on winning one of the regular season's first 26 races, shying away from the previous points system that rewarded consistency over luck. It's a major gamble for a league with a niche yet fervent audience that has historically reacted negatively to such drastic change.
The bet Nascar's placing is that the excitement and success of the postseason for the Big Four -- NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL -- will translate to a broader audience. Baseball in particular recently restructured its playoff format to place importance on a single game: the wild-card play-in game, introduced in 2012. Before that postseason, critics largely dismissed the addition of a second wild-card team, thinking it would dilute the importance of regular-season records and division titles and place an unbalanced premium on the one game. But after seeing the energy it infused in the playoff race, many people changed their tune and enjoyed the man-made intensity of the game.
Similarly, Nascar is hoping to capitalize on the casual sports fan's short attention span and penchant for spectacle. The new playoff format favors stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who can overcome his lack of season-long consistency with a win or two in the first 26 races. It also favors underdogs once they've made it to the championship round, setting the stage for stunning upsets to grab the cup. As we've seen in the Super Bowl in years past, the best team doesn't always win, which hasn't fazed the football's popularity among diehards and casual fans alike. Time will tell if Nascar can parlay single-race drama into widening appeal.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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