NASCAR playoffs try to rev up new racing fans

The Chase for the cup begins this weekend in New Hampshire.

And then there were 10. Stock-car racing begins its playoff run in New Hampshire Sunday (TNT, 12:30 p.m. ET), pitting the Top 10 drivers against one another during a 10-race stretch that ends Nov. 20 in Miami.

If you've never watched auto racing before, NASCAR hopes its sprint to the finish will make it easier for new fans to come along for the ride. The new system is aimed at simplifying how the season champion is crowned while also creating an atmosphere similar to playoffs in the other major sports.

And it seems to be working. NASCAR introduced its postseason, known as the Chase for the Cup, last year, garnering increased fan interest, higher TV ratings, and a to-the-wire finish that crowned Kurt Busch champion. This year, Tony Stewart, with five victories and 18 Top-10 finishes during the first 26 races of 2005, leads the pack.

The main difference: The new system gives competitors a greater sense of urgency, as last weekend's race in Richmond, Va., demonstrated. Anticipated runs by four-time champion Jeff Gordon, as well as up-and-comers Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray, fizzled, leaving them out of the title hunt.

At the same time, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who was mired in 17th place as recently as July, completed a closing surge that left him in the Top 10. Another young gun, Carl Edwards, also slipped into the championship field.

"We've seen increased focus and determination on the race track," says George Pyne, NASCAR chief operating officer. "It has ratcheted up the competition."

Just as important, Mr. Pyne notes that last year's racing playoff proved effective at helping NASCAR compete with a busy fall sports calendar filled with football, baseball playoffs, and the start of basketball season.

"This is an important thing, much the way college basketball took a giant leap when it created the graphic of the bracket for the NCAA tournament," says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University. "You didn't have to know anything about college basketball to enjoy the tournament. This is the same idea: It gives NASCAR a clear narrative vector of, 'Here's where we are and here's where we're going for the championship.' "

In past years, NASCAR crowned its champion based on a season-long formula of points acquired by winning races, leading laps, and related factors.

The remaining 33 drivers outside the Top 10 continue competing for individual race purses and titles, but have no role in the championship hunt save that of playing spoiler.

Which means both Mr. Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular drivers, will continue competing even as they have no shot at the title. Observers say the absence of NASCAR's top two stars in its championship finale marks a stiff test of the stock-car circuit's newfound popularity.

Part of the concern stems from the abrasive nature of Mr. Stewart, the current leader. He won the 2002 season title and commands respect among fellow drivers for blending moxie with relentless determination. Stewart's bluntness and renowned temper tantrums in past years gave drivers and NASCAR officials cause for concern. (At one point, his sponsor, Home Depot, publicly rebuked him.)

This year, he has avoided off-track dust-ups while scorching competitors. As for the Chase, Stewart, in remarks provided by his spokesman, says: "I think it can be a positive thing for our sport, but we'll just sit back and see what happens. I'm not sure if any of us like or dislike it, but we can't do anything about it.... So we'll just ride it out and see how it works."

Competitors and analysts also see competitive imbalance as a looming threat. Roush Racing, for example, has five drivers - Mr. Kenseth, Mr. Busch, Mr. Edwards, Mark Martin, and Greg Biffle - in the Chase, accounting for half the championship field. NASCAR Chairman Brian France says owners may be limited in future years to fielding a limited number of teams each season.

Such hiccups, as well as lingering concerns that race victories aren't weighted heavily enough in the points system - Gordon was a three-time winner this season, including the Daytona 500 - make experts hesitant to coronate the Chase for the Cup an unqualified success.

"It's way too early to pass judgment," says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time series champion and now a broadcaster with Fox Sports. "It's still got flaws. They need to tweak it. Is it better than it ever was? I think the verdict is still out on that."

Who's in the NASCAR Chase

The 10-race Chase for the Cup is like a brand-new season - think baseball or football playoffs, where everyone begins on (relatively) equal footing.

So Greg Biffle's 185-point regular-season deficit has been shaved to a mere five.

This appalls purists.

"When you're that many points behind and they wipe the slate clean, that's what I don't like," says retired champion Darrell Waltrip.

Here are the standings going into the Chase (number in parentheses indicates points behind leader):

1. Tony Stewart

2. Greg Biffle (-5)

3. Rusty Wallace (-10)

4. Jimmie Johnson (-15)

5. Kurt Busch (-20)

6. Mark Martin (-25)

7. Jeremy Mayfield (-30)

8. Matt Kenseth (-35)

(tie) Carl Edwards (-35)

10. Ryan Newman (-45)

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