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NASCAR's New Playoffs: Wrecks, Fights And Better Ratings

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NASCAR's championship race is this weekend. It's the first time the sport will crown its champion using a new playoff system that concludes with a winner-take-all final race.

The new format makes NASCAR's playoffs much more like other pro sports – the emphasis is now on winning rather than just racing consistently. The change has led to more excitement on and off the track, with wrecks, fights and higher TV ratings.

Remember that guy in high school who seemed like he was always asking for a fight? Under NASCAR's new playoff format, that's become driver Brad Keselowski.

It started with the playoff race in Charlotte last month, when Keselowski banged fenders with several drivers before and after the race. As he walked back to his team's truck, driver Matt Kenseth charged him from behind. (A NASCAR video shows the drivers are separated pretty quickly.)

You can think of that as a shoving match. Three weeks later at the playoff race in Texas, Keselowski was in an actual brawl. 

Driver Jeff Gordon and his pit crew stomped over to Keselowski's car after the race. Gordon was furious Keselowski wrecked him to get ahead.

The drivers and pit crews got in each other's faces, shouting, and then the crowd roared as it turns into a brawl, with guys throwing punches and both drivers getting a little bloody.

NASCAR fans, drivers and executives credit the increased intensity to the new playoff format.

CEO Brian France said in a press conference Friday that fistfights are not good for the sport, but more aggressive racing absolutely is.

"If you go through NASCAR's history, that's what we're about," he said. "There are limits and lines, but we expect tight, tight racing that sometimes will have some contact."

France likes that the new playoff system has led to more of that.

The old system, called the Chase, was a mathematical labyrinth that rewarded consistently high finishes over occasional wins.    

In the new Chase, there's a four-round playoff in which winning is the only way to guarantee advancing.

It does still involve points for consistency though. At the end of last weekend's race in Phoenix, Ryan Newman needed to move up from 12th to 11th place to make the championship round. Kyle Larson's 42 car was in his way.

Newman bumped Larson's 42 car into the wall and took 11th place. Afterward, Newman talked to an ESPN reporter about his move on the much younger driver.

"Did what we had to, as clean as I possibly could," he said. "I wasn't proud of it, but I'll do what I got to to make it to this next round. That little boy, I think if he was in my position, he would've probably done the same thing."

Newman joins Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin in the final round. They'll still be racing with a full field of drivers, but the first one of those four to finish will win the championship.

Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson says the new system is much easier for casual fans to get.

"The premium has been placed again on winning, and I think that is the most critical new element in this format and the most easily understood: win, and you advance," he said. "That's NCAA basketball. It's NFL playoffs. Win and you advance, and I think that's important."

Pilson's history with NASCAR goes back to the 1970s, when he started airing NASCAR races on CBS. He views NASCAR's latest change as an early success. 

"I think the entire racing community - fans, sponsors, drivers, TV networks - has bought into the new format," he said.

TV ratings have spiked as the playoffs have progressed, according to Sports Media Watch.

Ratings were down for the races in the first two rounds, but the third round races at Texas and Phoenix hit multi-year highs. Texas had its highest rating since 2011, and Phoenix – the race after the brawl – had its highest rating since 2009.

The championship race is Sunday in Miami at three o'clock. Driver Jeff Gordon joked after last week's race that if you think it's been ugly lately, it's going to get really ugly this weekend.