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NASCAR playoff pleases networks

JOHN C. COTEY
Published January 16, 2004

Next week, NASCAR will shake up the auto racing world when it unveils a new playoff plan designed, it hopes, to reward brilliance over consistency and spice up the last half of the season.

Some drivers have said they don't like the concept.

But NBC (and TNT) will be thrilled. Though the network has declined to comment, when the plan is announced, NBC's deal to cover the second half of the season (Fox covers the first half while TNT covers some second-half races) will be golden.

Last year, NBC's NASCAR ratings declined 2 percent. The last race of the season at Homestead, with the points title long wrapped up by the steady but unspectacular Matt Kenseth, was down 13 percent.

That was due to a scoring system (175 points to the winner, progressively fewer for each finisher) that did not place enough of an emphasis on winning.

But the new plan expected to be implemented would make only the top 10 or 12 drivers after 26 races eligible for the title, which would be decided during the final 10 races.

For NBC, this means more drama, better television and higher ratings. It means potentially cutting into football ratings, and if not, at least holding steady and cementing the sport as No. 2.

While some in the media believe NBC is driving NASCAR to its doom by forcing the playoff system as a way to boost its ratings, that's unlikely.

Make no mistake, the two have discussed the potential of a playoff (and Fox probably has chimed in as well), but it's hard to fathom NASCAR, a stubborn organization, bowing to NBC with such a wholesale revamping.

More like the opposite. NASCAR coming up with the plan - the scar left from the zestless 2003 season as the driving force - and bringing the idea to NBC, which naturally loves it.

Fox, on the other hand, would appear to have a beef, even if it has said it favors a new scoring system.

Doesn't the first half of the season now have less appeal, producing lower ratings, leading to lower ad revenue?

Well, not exactly.

"We think that the added interest would be good for everyone involved," said Lou D'Ermilio, the senior vice president of Fox Sports.

Fox had better ratings than NBC last year despite having the early races, and it doesn't expect much deviation from its numbers of the past two seasons (5.8 rating in 2002 and 2003.)

The race to get into the top 10 or 12 should produce enough first-half drama to keep Fox happy. While NASCAR could produce an exciting climax to the season for NBC, there is no denying every one of the first 26 races has more importance.

"We don't see any diminishing (value) at all (in doing the first half)," D'Ermilio said.

Provided the decision comes down next week, expect two networks to be pleased with the potential of the upcoming season.

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