NASCAR still runs leaded gas in its racecars, still pauses for pre-race prayers each Sunday and still is run by the family that founded it 56 years ago. So it was no wonder that traditionalists howled when third-generation CEO Brian France announced in January that stock-car racing was abolishing its longtime method of crowning its annual champion and replacing it with a so-called Chase for the Championship.
France's goal was to boost TV ratings by ensuring drama down the stretch of NASCAR's 36-race season. His idea was to refigure the standings after the first 26 races and pit the top 10 drivers against one another in a postseason sprint to the finish.
"Things have been so much the same for so long in our community, that any change like that is pretty radical," says Bill Scott, executive vice president of Petty Enterprises. "Everybody sort of looked a little bit askance when they did it."
As NASCAR wraps up its first season under the new format, racing purists haven't exactly embraced France's overhaul of a sport they didn't think needed fixing in the first place. But there's ample evidence entering Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 that it has delivered exactly what France had hoped:
* TV ratings for the season's final races are up 10 percent over last year, averaging a 4.4/10 compared with a 4.0/9 for the same time frame in 2003.
* With five drivers in contention for the 2004 Nextel Cup, the run-up to Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway has generated unparalleled media buzz.
* The battle is so tight, with just 82 points separating the contenders, that the title may not be settled until the final lap.
Even teams that failed to qualify for the Chase, such as the No. 43 and No. 45 Dodges owned by Petty Enterprises, are singing its praises.
"From our standpoint, anything that increases fan interest in the sport is a good thing," Scott says. "It's the rising-tide-raises-all-ships theory: Even though our teams are not in the Chase for the Championship this year, the fact that there are more people watching the races and more stories being written about NASCAR is better for us and for our sponsors in the long run."
The problem, as France saw it, wasn't that NASCAR's TV ratings were poor. No sport has grown faster over the last decade; NASCAR's ratings now trump those of the NBA and MLB. France's concern was that ratings tapered off each fall when the NFL started and NASCAR's season came to a head. That trend was exacerbated each year NASCAR's championship was won in a rout. Five times in the last six years, in fact, the title was determined before the season's final race.
So France devised a way to engineer season-ending drama with an NFL-style postseason. Drivers would accumulate points as usual through the first 26 races. At that point, the top 10 would qualify for the championship chase. To ensure a close finish, their points were recomputed, with just five points separating each entering the 10-race sprint to the finish.
"My first impression was, 'Why try to fix something that's not broke?' " veteran driver Ricky Rudd recalled.
Team owner Richard Childress, who won six titles with the late Dale Earnhardt, agreed. "As soon as I heard it, I didn't think it was a good idea," Childress said. "The first time you hear something like that you think about change, and most people resist change."
Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark got an earful from disgruntled fans during a recent open house at the track.
"They love their sport the way it is," Clark said. "They've loved it for years the way it is. But all things change."
And change is what NASCAR's new points system has delivered.
In Rudd's view, not all of it has been good. At 24th in the standings, Rudd didn't qualify for NASCAR's postseason. While he acknowledges it's up to him and his team to perform better next season, he also feels that broadcasters have ignored some of the better-performing teams that weren't in the running for the title. "The bottom line is I think sponsors that in the past would have gotten mentioned [during the broadcasts] are not getting the mentions," Rudd said.
NASCAR teams rely on corporate sponsors to bankroll their $12 million to $16 million annual budgets. Rudd's fear is that those sponsors may start structuring contracts according to the title chase: paying 75 percent of the money up front, and the final 25 percent only if the team qualifies for the title chase, receiving the TV exposure that goes with it.
"I'm just a racer that came along before television," said Rudd, 48. "I just don't think television ought to have a the say-so on what we do. NASCAR has sort of sold out their rights, and it's basically a television-scripted race circuit. My concern is that sometimes they forget that it takes sponsors' money to drive this thing."
NBC producer Sam Flood defends the balance the network has struck in covering title contenders and the also-rans. "You're kind of forced by the results of the race to have a bigger focus on cars eligible to win the championship," Flood said. "That said, we have told the stories of all the different drivers in the various cars."
NASCAR's new points system has also changed the faces atop the standings. Under the old system Jeff Gordon would be entering Sunday's race with a 52-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. Instead Kurt Busch, who would have been fourth among the top five, is the points leader, having benefited most after his 293-point deficit was reduced to 30 points after the season's first 26 races. Busch got an extra boost in his title bid Friday, when he won the pole for Sunday's Ford 400 with a fast lap of 179.319 mph.
Asked if it was frustrating to know he would be leading the standings under the old system, Gordon said: "What could have happened or what it may have been under a different points structure really isn't what's important."
What is important, he said, is figuring out how to race the system to your advantage. The old formula rewarded consistency, and the front-runner's smartest play was racing conservatively down the stretch. A front-runner can't afford to do that under the new system with so many challengers on his bumper.
"It's certainly more intense for all the guys that are a part of it," Gordon said. "Whoever wins this championship, I think it's probably one of the most difficult championships I've ever been a part of because every week the points are changing."