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Tom Musick: Ladies and gentlemen, fill your brackets

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 5:47 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 10:28 p.m. CDT
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NASCAR CEO Brian France speaks Thurday during a news conference in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo)

Attention, race fans.

We need to come up with a nickname.

All right, so "March Madness" already has been taken, but that's fine because NASCAR's new championship format won't hit top speed until September.

How about The (Even More) Amazing Race? The Sweet 16 Bracket of Left Turn Lunacy? Or maybe we could call it the Ballad of Burnin' Rubber?

Fine, so there's probably a reason why I am not a marketing consultant.

But the reality is that NASCAR took a big step forward Thursday regardless of whether it comes up with a catchy, "March Madness" type of moniker to describe the new Chase for the Sprint Cup. The changes will carry big implications in Joliet, where the Chicagoland Speedway will serve as the first site of an elimination-style tournament to determine the champion driver.

In addition to creating a 16-driver playoff bracket, NASCAR also recently announced design changes to make cars more aerodynamic along with changes to qualifying.

"I think it's absolutely a shot in the arm," said Scott Paddock, the president of Chicagoland Speedway, who spoke by phone from NASCAR's meetings in Charlotte, N.C. "I think these are game changers.

"I think everyone can understand a bracket format in the playoffs. Now, for the casual fan, this sport has become much more easy to understand. Any time you're talking round-by-round eliminations – think of the NCAA tournament – that creates additional intensity and excitement, week to week."

As one of those casual fans, I'm glad I can stop worrying about a point system that never made sense.

Here's a rundown of how the new bracket will work.

Starting Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway, the top 16 drivers from the regular season will compete for the opportunity to host the Golden Radiator Hose. OK, so maybe I made up the name for the championship trophy, but it's safe to say that the winning driver will make a trunk full of money.

The 10-race format remains in tact, but the details have changed in a big way. After the first three races – Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover – the bottom four drivers will be eliminated and 12 will remain in the championship hunt. After the next three races – Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega – the next four bottom drivers will be eliminated and eight will remain. After the next three races – Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix – only four drivers will remain.

Get it? Got it? Good.

The final race at Homestead-Miami will be winner take all among those four drivers. No advanced math, no complicated formula.

If you blow your engine or get a flat tire or somehow manage to hit a deer, then you're out of luck. As is the case with the Super Bowl and the NCAA championship game and many other big events, you have to perform at your best when it matters most in order to be crowned the champion.

"Under the old system, a driver could finish fourth, fifth or sixth and say today was a good day," Paddock said. "Now, the priority and the premium is on winning. I think you're going to get a lot of Cinderella stories."

And increased ticket sales, which is a great thing for tracks such as Chicagoland.

Ray Hardesty knows racing like the back of his hand, or at least like the bottom of his pedal-pushing foot. The 44-year-old McHenry resident said he races about 20 weekends a year at Rockford Speedway with his old-school, 1977 Monte Carlo that used to be popular among legendary drivers such as Dale Earnhardt.

Although NASCAR's new format could diminish the importance of consistency, Hardesty said, it also could draw in more casual fans because it's simple to understand.

"I think it's definitely trying to draw more people in," Hardesty said. "I know our crowds [in Rockford] have been down the last couple of years."

But spirits are up.

It's easy to see why.

"This is a very historic and significant day for the sport and for the fans," Paddock said. "This is as excited as I've seen folks for a long, long time."

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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