Excitement of racing’s playoffs tough to beat

It’s opening weekend for the “playoffs” in NASCAR’s Cup series and NHRA’s four professional categories.

While the old systems for determining champions are more to my liking, there is no complaint about the added excitement the new formats provide this year. It has just taken a few years for me to admit that.

Racing’s playoffs are much more dramatic than what we experience in major league baseball, where only eight teams advance to the playoffs after a 162-game regular season.

If your favorite race team didn’t qualify for the horsepower playoffs, it still can win races down the stretch. That gives Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans something to cheer for.

NASCAR’S 10-race Chase kicks off in Loudon, N.H., on Sunday, and the six-event NHRA Countdown begins today in Concord, N.C.

NHRA made some bold, last-minute changes to its format a couple of weeks ago that give fans a big lift.

Until today, low qualifiers in Top Fuel and Funny Car usually were determined in late sessions on Fridays when cooler temperatures produced ideal atmospheric conditions for top performances.

Many teams would use the other three sessions for shakedown runs to get ready for Sunday’s eliminations. That left spectators watching too many tire-smoking efforts that ended before half track.

Points now will be paid for the three quickest in each session. That’s a big incentive.

In a sport in which winning one round pays 20 points, it’s huge to have the potential to get 12 more in a weekend.

NHRA also will offer bonus points (20) for any driver topping a national elapsed time record for the first time since it shortened quarter-mile races by 320 feet last year for safety reasons. Speed records will earn 20 points for the first time since 1988.

The new bonus-point features add new wrinkles — good wrinkles — to the Countdown, which includes the penultimate event Oct. 30 through Nov. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In NASCAR, some great story lines should help extend the recent run of improved Cup TV ratings.

It starts with Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a record fourth consecutive championship, and a close second is teammate Mark Martin having a good chance to end his role as four-time series runner-up.

Martin, 50, is a fan favorite and starts the Chase as the top seed based on his four wins this year.

Another story line is Tony Stewart’s inaugural season as a team owner, which could end with his third Cup championship. That’s staggering for a new team, though Stewart gets engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports and at times refers to Hendrick drivers as teammates.

Also, Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion, has escaped the shadow of his little brother because Kurt is in the Chase and Kyle isn’t.

And a Cup championship for Juan Pablo Montoya, who qualified 11th for the Chase, would make him the most accomplished racer ever — anywhere. He has won the Indianapolis 500, an IndyCar championship and seven Formula One races — credentials that never will be replicated.

But one negative aspect of the Chase can’t be ignored.

It will remain flawed until a greater emphasis is put on winning. Although NASCAR insists its champion should be determined by yearlong consistency, it resets Chase standings by awarding drivers 10 points for each race win.

So Stewart — the regular-season points leader who has three wins — is seeded second to Martin. No reward was given to Stewart for a more consistent run in the first 26 races that produced a 179-point lead over Jeff Gordon, who is seeded sixth based on one win.

Entering the playoffs, NASCAR’s championship philosophy continues to be inconsistent, and NHRA’s continues to be unpredictable.

But whatever happens, the next couple of months of racing will be the year’s most dramatic.

It’s playoff — and payoff — time.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit Wolf’s motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.

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