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NASCAR Heads Into 2015 With Playoff Momentum, Big TV Contract, But Fewer Seats

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NASCAR goes into its next season with a giant new TV contract and a revamped playoff system that led to wrecks, fights and some higher ratings last year. The sport's executives say the changes made last season one of the most thrilling in the past decade, and that even casual fans took notice. But the sport is still nowhere near as well-viewed or attended as it was before the recession.

NASCAR’s new playoff system came down to drivers Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman racing neck and neck. Harvick held off Newman over the final few laps of the final race of the year to win the championship.

That's how playoffs normally end: whoever wins the final contest, wins it all. But before last year, NASCAR’s postseason was nothing like other sports.

"The strategy before used to always be consistency," says Gene Haas, co-owner of Harvick’s racing team.

NASCAR calls its playoffs the Chase. The Chase used to be a convoluted point system where it didn’t matter if you won races as long as you finished top 10 pretty often.

Last season, NASCAR simplified and became more like other sports, with knockout rounds and a winner-take-all championship 

"The strategy now is win, win at all costs," Haas says, "because that's what moves you up and there's a lot of Hail Mary passes."

In stock car racing, Hail Marys sometimes mean wrecks, like when Ryan Newman knocked Kyle Larson’s car into the wall in Phoenix to make the next round. 

More aggressive driving also led to fights. Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and their pit crews were in an all-out brawl in Texas, with both drivers getting a little bloody. When the fight started, the crowd went wild. And TV ratings for the next race spiked.

In fact, more people watched several of the playoff races, including the championship, than had in years, according to Sports Media Watch. 

Brad Keselowski says the changes are working.

"I think our fans, in general, even if it's not my aggressive moves, I think our fans love aggressive moves," he says.

But even though more people turned on the TV for the final Chase races, viewership for NASCAR’s playoffs overall was down slightly from the year before. 

Attendance continues to be a challenge, too, and that’s leading to changes.

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Credit Michael Tomsic
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Construction crews are tearing down 41,000 seats at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At the Charlotte Motor Speedway, there is a gaping hole where an entire section of stands used to be. Construction crews are tearing down 41,000 seats. To put that in perspective, if you took that many seats out of most NFL stadiums, you’d be cutting their seating capacity in half.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway is also getting rid of seats: 17,000 of them.

You can think of this as a business adjusting to its post-recession reality. Admissions revenue at the major tracks is down more than 40 percent from their peaks in 2007 and 2008, according to the most recent annual filings

But Charlotte Motor Speedway General Manager Marcus Smith says NASCAR may have turned the corner.

"We've seen the curb flatten, and now we're seeing it tick up a little bit," he says. "As the economy improves, and I think with gas prices lower it really puts more money in people's pockets, and we're seeing that show up in the ticket office."

Smith says the speedway is ahead with ticket sales for the upcoming season. 

And keep in mind, low attendance for NASCAR is still huge compared to many other sports. The Charlotte speedway, for example, will still have room for roughly 90,000 people after it tears down all those seats.   

NASCAR CEO Brian France says the sport measures its success partly online now, too.

"Look at our digital numbers: billion downloads and millions of people every week, unique users, on our site," France says. "When you judge it all, this is not only the most dominant motor sport in North America by a wide margin," but it's also competing well with other sports - and has a fat new TV contract to prove it.

Fox Sports and NBC are combining to pay $8.2 billion for NASCAR TV rights over the next 10 years. Fox Sports President Eric Shanks says because of changing trends in how people watch TV, sports are one of the few things people still watch live. 

"Twenty years ago, no NASCAR race would've ranked in the top 20 primetime shows," Shanks says. "Now, NASCAR is a top-five primetime show. Its size of audience, and in the context of what's happening in entertainment in general, NASCAR and other sports clearly rise to the top."

Perhaps no driver has a better feel for how NASCAR has changed than Jeff Gordon. He won his first championship in 1995, and he’s announced he’ll retire after this season.   

"We had to reinvent ourselves and start looking at areas that we can be better, and I love the fact that there's a lot of those conversations right now," Gordon says. "I think the Chase format last year was phenomenal, and I think that really kind of got the buzz back."

The NASCAR season begins with the Daytona 500 on February 22.