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Title system aimed for buzz, brings boos

When NASCAR announced it was changing the rules again, to create a winner-take-all, one-race showdown for the Sprint Cup championship, there was an uproar. A very loud uproar. It sounded like the flyover before the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before the government shutdown, when there still were flyovers.

NASCAR said it wanted to create a “Game 7 moment” for its fans, like in the stick-and-ball-sports. Based on the outcry, it would appear most stock-car racing fans — at least the traditional ones from the Southern states — don’t care much for Game 7 moments. Or, for that matter, stick-and-ball sports not named Southeastern Conference football.

At first, a lot of the drivers said they didn’t like the changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, either, which will have 16 drivers qualifying for the stock-car racing playoffs, with drivers being eliminated in intervals until there is a final four. Think of it as March Madness, only in November, with engines.

These four drivers will race among themselves for the championship during the season’s last race. Only a bunch of other cars will be on the track, too, and they may get in the way.

(It would be like the Seahawks and Broncos playing in the Super Bowl, only to have the Bears and Lions run onto the field at the same time.)

In NASCAR’s perfect world, the remaining title contenders will run four abreast coming out of the last turn before colliding into one another, with the winning driver skidding across the finish line upside down.

This would be the ideal Game 7 moment, though slightly more hairy than watching Bill Mazeroski running around the bases while whipping his batting helmet around against the Yankees in the World Series.

It would be even better for NASCAR if the car skidding across the finish line upside down was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s, because he’s more popular than the guy who drives the ice cream truck when kids are around.

These latest revisions to the NASCAR playoffs are supposed to reward guys who race to win, instead of reward guys who race to collect points; race winners are all but guaranteed to make the final 16.

This is what the Las Vegas lead foot Kyle Busch had to say about that: “You’ve got NASCAR telling you, ‘Well, everyone is going to race differently with this new format.’ We race 100 percent every single race that we’re out there. We try to win every single week. If you can tell me that we don’t want to win every single Chase race throughout the Chase, you’re kidding yourself.

“It fries me that NASCAR in itself can tell you that you don’t race hard every week.”

At first, Earnhardt Jr. seemed to be one of the few drivers who like the new system.

“Let’s change it all. I’m all for it,” he told The Associated Press. “A lot of times we change things for the fans, and I think the drivers are going to enjoy some of this stuff as much as the fans are.”

Of course, Earnhardt said this before he won the Daytona 500 and finished second at Phoenix on Sunday. Under these new rules, he could win a dozen races, or even two dozen, and still not win the championship. Should that transpire, he might still say he was all for the new system. Or not.

If he wins the championship by skidding across the finish line upside down, these new changes probably will be considered a great thing, way greater than golf’s FedEx Cup, for instance. The FedEx Cup is pro golf’s version of a playoff system that nobody outside of pro golf really cares about.

Henrik Stenson is the current champion, if that tells you anything.

See, in golf, they get all lathered up about the four majors a lot more than they get lathered up about some guy from Sweden winning contrived playoffs.

In NASCAR, they get all lathered up about the guy who wins the Daytona 500, unless his name is Derrike Cope, or something like that. They sort of got lathered up when Jimmie Johnson won under the old playoff system, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps NASCAR could create additional fan interest by having majors, like golf. That way, instead of the casual fan only tuning into the Daytona 500, he could tune into Daytona, and the 600-mile race at Charlotte, and the Brickyard 400, and maybe the Southern 500 at Darlington — something for traditional NASCAR fans. The Southern 500 could be the fourth NASCAR major, the PGA Championship of stock car racing.

With increased emphasis on these four races, perhaps a lot more people would watch them, the way a lot more people watch the golf majors, or watch horse racing’s Triple Crown. There could be a bigger trophy, separate points or whatever. Then Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser could compare Jimmie Johnson to Richard Petty, or whomever, the way they compare Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus.

On the other hand, it would be great if Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Sprint Cup championship by skidding across the finish line upside down. It would be even greater if the NFL wasn’t playing that day, in which case somebody might even see it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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