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Motorsports

New Nextel Cup playoff format a go for 2004

By BRANT JAMES
Published January 9, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH - Done deal.

Though NASCAR officials have yet to finalize the details, the system with which the Nextel Cup champion is determined will change beginning this season, NASCAR vice president of communications Jim Hunter said Thursday.

An announcement could be made by the end of January, he said.

"I think we pretty well have decided we're going to go ahead and make a change," Hunter said during the final day of the first of two Nextel Cup testing sessions at Daytona International Speedway.

Several proposals have been discussed, but the basic principle involves a set group of drivers atop the points standings after a given cutoff race using the remainder of the season as a playoff. Hunter said NASCAR has discussed using the top 10, 11 and 12. He hinted there would be some reward for a driver not in the playoffs finishing strong.

If the much-discussed 26-race cutoff is used, the regular season would end Sept. 11 at Richmond, Va., with the playoffs commencing Sept. 19 at Loudon, N.H.

The need to stoke post-Labor Day television viewership is worth the initial irritation of fans and most drivers, Hunter said. And if the plan fails - though what constitutes a failure has not been determined - the system used since 1975 could return in 2005.

"The bottom line is we want to create a chase for the championship that adds some excitement," Hunter said. "We've run a lot of models. We played the what-if game. What if we did this, what if we did that?

"The reason we've been quiet and not talked a lot about it, we had a lot of questions to answer for ourselves before we went forward."

The only change to the points given in each race, Hunter said, will be a bonus for winning a race.

"I assure you the guy finishing second will not end up with the same amount of points as those winning the race," he said.

DRAFTED: Boris Said had nothing to do but eat barbecue for the first two days of testing, but a rule relaxation allowed him his first experience on the track Thursday.

As pole winner last season at Sonoma, Calif., the road-racing specialist has a spot in the Feb.7 Bud Shootout in the MB2/MBV Motorsports No.01 Chevrolet, but his only previous superspeedway experience was an ARCA race last year at Talladega.

"Now that was cool," said Said, who had to wedge his 6-foot-3 frame into a car prepared for 5-9 regular driver Joe Nemechek. "I can't believe they go three-wide here. It's a lot different than Talladega; you have to do a lot more driving here."

NASCAR originally told the team it would be charged a test if Said split time during the session, but allowed Scott Wimmer and Dave Blaney to share a test (Wimmer left to get married) and Mike McLaughlin to replace Tony Stewart.

The two No.01 cars were consistently among the fastest all week, an "encouraging" development, Nemechek said, after producing a top-10 finish and good qualifying efforts in four races with his new team to end last season.

NOT NOW: Stewart said he has decided not to pursue a sixth start in the Indianapolis 500 until he is "done with Winston Cup racing."

"It's not fair to (his crew), as competitive as this has become," said Stewart, who last contested the Indy 500 in 2001 and finished sixth for Chip Ganassi.

That's not to say Stewart has become a one-car man. He did not test Thursday so he could leave for this weekend's Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Okla.

FAST: Michael Waltrip finished with the fastest average speed in the six test sessions this week, producing his best (187.731 mph) on Thursday. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the best time in the drafting session at 188.391. ... Bill Elliott's limited schedule may be limited even more by sponsorship problems. Car owner Ray Evernham said only three events - the Bud Shootout, March 7 at Las Vegas, April 4 at Texas - are confirmed for the 1988 Winston Cup champion.

[Last modified January 9, 2004, 01:46:07]


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