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Drivers yet to be sold on NASCAR’s 2-year-old playoff format

The two-year-old playoff system served him well, but even though Kyle Busch is fresh off a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, that doesn’t mean he isn’t in favor of changes.

Sixteen drivers make the playoff field and then compete in an elimination format with the ultimate winner decided in the season finale at Homestead-Miami.

Busch, a Las Vegas native, said he would like to see the points leader after the 26-race “regular season” receive a bye through the first-round, three-race format.

“I think being able to accomplish that feat, it’s somewhat similar to the old championship format of being able to lead by that point of the season of 26 races,” Kyle Busch said during NASCAR’s Champion’s Week in Las Vegas. “So I think you should reward that guy and not have to make them sweat for the first round.”

Jeff Gordon, who is retiring after a 23-year career that included four Cup championships, was in complete favor of Busch’s suggestion.

“I don’t know anybody that doesn’t feel that way as a driver,” said Gordon, who finished third this season. “We’re not putting near enough emphasis on how hard it is to be leading the points after the first 26 races. It’s a big accomplishment, and it should be rewarded.”

The format was put in place to create more of a buildup for the 10 playoff races, emphasizing winning over accumulating points.

NASCAR hoped it would be a selling point with fans, especially since high TV ratings in the fall against the king that is the NFL is like the Philadelphia 76ers facing the Golden State Warriors. The sport’s governing body got its wish.

The Nov. 22 race at Homestead was the most-watched season finale in 10 years, drawing a 4.42 rating on NBC and NBC Sports Network.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 12th in the standings, said if the playoff format is a hit with fans, it will stick.

“It’s created a lot of excitement, so I think the drivers see all the positives,” Earnhardt said. “There are not many negatives to it at all. It’s the new norm. It’s what the fans want, and we give the fans what they want. If they want the old system, they’ll tell you, and you give them the old system. NASCAR’s been great about giving the fans what they’ve wanted for years. They’ve been better over the last 10 years at listening.

“We’ve made a lot of choices and decisions and changes to the sport strictly on fan feedback even when the drivers hate those choices.”

Kurt Busch, Kyle’s brother and a fellow Las Vegan, won the first title under the previous format when the Chase for the Cup was introduced in 2004. In that system, 12 drivers qualified for the Chase, with the champion being the points leader in those 10 events.

Now it’s the top 15 in victories with the final spot or spots filled out by the leader(s) in points.

“This one’s aggressive,” Kurt Busch said. “It’s cut-throat, and it pits the drivers against each other. It’s very difficult to have a mistake and to get out of having that mistake, such as Jimmie Johnson. He had an oil-bearing seal go bad at Dover (Del.), and he’s eliminated. And he was one of the strongest cars all season long. A $15 part shouldn’t erase the $30 or million that they’ve accumulated as a team to go and race with.”

Johnson wouldn’t mind seeing a return to the previous system in which he captured six titles, but he was intrigued by Kyle Busch’s suggestion.

“That’s a very good suggestion,” Johnson said. “I’d like to see the guy that wins the first 26 at least get a coffee mug for his success.”

— Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65

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