Championship chase will grab the spotlight for NASCAR

NASCAR has never been afraid to pull the trigger on a new concept to ensure the growth of the sport. On Thursday, NASCAR Vice-President Jim Hunter confirmed after weeks of speculation that the 2004 Nextel Cup championship will be determined...

NASCAR has never been afraid to pull the trigger on a new concept to ensure the growth of the sport.

On Thursday, NASCAR Vice-President Jim Hunter confirmed after weeks of speculation that the 2004 Nextel Cup championship will be determined by a brand new format. After 26 races, the top-10 teams will be locked in a 10-race playoff-style battle for the championship.

The specifics are being finalized by NASCAR and will be announced in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500 in February, but the concept is designed to avoid the anti-climactic championship chase that happened last year when Matt Kenseth all but locked up the title in September.

"The whole idea is to regroup after 26 events," Hunter says. "The interest in our sport from Labor Day until the end of the season -- we go from the front of the sports page to the back of the sports section."

Eight times in the final 10 races, the circuit returns to tracks that have already been on the schedule, which contributes to dwindling interest from the casual fans down the final stretch. NASCAR hopes the new system will allow them to take advantage of being the only major sport that culminates in November.

"We're trying to focus some additional attention in that critical part of the season on our top-10 drivers and their chase for the championship," says Hunter, who also acknowledged that the new system will place a greater emphasis on winning races throughout the season. "We are going to add more points to the winner of the race."

Kenseth claimed Roush Racing's first Winston Cup championship despite winning just one race in 2003. The year before, Kenseth won a series-high five races, but finished eighth in the standings.

"I have to wait until I see how they structure it before I say too much about it," says Kenseth, who claimed Roush Racing's first championship last year despite winning just one race. "But if you start it at zero with 10 races to go, I don't like that idea at all because in the last 10 races there are no Daytonas, there are no Bristols, there are no Poconos and there are no road courses. I don't think a champion should be rewarded off of how good they are at a mile-and-a-half race track. I think it still needs to reward the team and driver that can do the best at all the different race tracks."

While initial reaction from most of the drivers attending this week's testing session at Daytona has been less than encouraging, added interest during the climax of the season is good for the growth of the sport.

"I think maybe it's time for change," says team owner Richard Childress, who won six Winston Cup titles with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. "NASCAR has reached another level. Maybe we do need a playoff. Sure there will be some questions and some hiccups to it. At the end of the day, NASCAR has made a lot of right decisions along the way."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Matt Kenseth , Jim Hunter