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Fisticuffs might be perfect solution to NASCAR’s dwindling popularity

Well, if these are the sorts of postrace shenanigans a new NASCAR playoff format might regularly produce … bravo.

Have at it, boys, is right.

The whole idea behind changing the ovaled journey by which a driver could win a Sprint Cup championship was to inject more entertainment and drama into the process, hoping mainstream folks might consider switching the channel away from their favorite football team each week.

It just wasn’t an exciting enough exercise in the past, when the champion was often decided on points before the season’s final few races.

It was like waiting for a 100-meter race to finish in which Usain Bolt had a 30-meter head start.

Now, guys just beat the crap out of each other, and I don’t mean when fighting for track position.

OK, so they do that, too.

The playoff format — expand the field to 16 drivers, have three race-rounds and then one final race, eliminate four drivers after each round based on points, automatically advance anyone who wins a race, reset the points after each round, crown a champion from whichever of four driver finishes best at Homestead on Nov. 16 — isn’t all that confusing when you study it one or 15 times.

Neither was the blood on the faces of Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski on Sunday.

I don’t know if we can call either of them Texas tough — the two rumbled about as well as Manny Pacquiao sings — but the dust-up at Texas Motor Speedway certainly created the sort of attention for NASCAR that the first Sunday in November rarely produces.

All you need to know: Video of the fight and a subsequent breakdown of why it occurred led the “SportsCenter” telecast on ESPN.

On the week’s biggest day for the NFL, a perpetual Godzilla of ratings.

Translation: While they might publicly condemn such nasty ways of drivers handling their business and even fine those crews involved, you can be sure NASCAR officials were throwing one humdinger of a party behind closed doors. They never get top billing over the likes of Manning and Brady. They don’t get top billing over the Jaguars.

Moonshine for everybody.

TV ratings for NASCAR have been in the sort of slump this year that gets a quarterback benched and a leadoff hitter dropped to the eighth spot and something called “Manhattan Love Story” canceled.

Eighteen of the season’s first 21 Sprint Cup telecasts had a decline from 2013, many down 20 percent. Fox has seen record lows for viewership some weeks.

Maybe a postrace fight or two brings things back.

After all, that’s what made NASCAR so popular in the first place.

Nobody knew it at the time, but the Daytona 500 in 1979 proved the most important race in NASCAR history. Richard Petty might have won his sixth Daytona that February afternoon, but it was a fistfight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers (Donnie and Bobby) that had the nation talking the following day.

It was also the first 500-mile race broadcast in its entirety live on national TV in the United States, meaning the first glance many casual fans received included drivers exchanging blows after the wrecked cars of Donnie Allison and Yarborough settled in the infield grass short of the finish line.

The story made the front page of the New York Times sports section the following day. NASCAR had arrived.

It wasn’t a perfect fight between Gordon and Keselowski, and I’m not sure either could take Yarborough or the Allisons even today, with all three being in their mid-70s. It also didn’t help that both crews became involved in the testosterone-filled ruckus or that fellow driver Kevin Harvick played the part of schoolyard coward by pushing Keselowski toward Gordon from behind and then backing off.

Harvick seems to have a lot of Capt. Jack Sparrow in him.

I would have preferred everyone formed a circle around Gordon and Keselowski and let them go at it, hockey style. How the fight came to pass — something about Keselowski seeing a hole between the leaders, going for it, colliding with Gordon and causing a tire to blow while severely hurting Gordon’s standing in the Chase — is secondary.

That it happened is notable.

That none of these recent fights have included either of the Busch brothers is also a long shot the size of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“These guys are jealous of the job he’s done this year,” team owner Roger Penske said in defending Keselowksi after an earlier meltdown and confrontation with fellow drivers at Charlotte this season. “He’s won races. He’s made poles. He’s been up front. Nobody likes to see a guy win like that. I want him to get mad. I don’t want him to take it.”

I don’t, either, even if it’s his fault tempers flare, and it sure seems as if Keselowksi does his best to find himself in the middle of this stuff.

Denny Hamlin said this week he doesn’t think other drivers respect Keselowski, given he doesn’t show much remorse for what most believe is overly aggressive driving. Hamlin then suggested it’s going to be hard for someone making so many enemies on the track to win the championship.

Keselowski won the Sprint Cup title in 2012, but that was when points mattered most and no one was eliminated as the playoffs progressed.

This way is much better.

Let them fight for the thing (literally) all the way to the end, beginning this week at Phoenix, where four of the eight remaining drivers will get cut.

That sound you hear?

NASCAR officials, partying like rock stars behind closed doors with each punch thrown.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

 

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