NASCAR’s final four a bold, and correct, move

NASCAR has made a series of changes to its Chase format. The changes are gimmicky – if you consider playoffs gimmicky.

The changes are gimmicky – if you consider the NCAA men’s basketball tournament gimmicky.

The changes are gimmicky – if you believe the tension, thrills, anticipation and heartbreak that elimination contests create are gimmicky.

NASCAR borrowed heavily from the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and college basketball.

Why wouldn’t it? If Hendrick Motorsports finds a trick that works, every other Sprint Cup team steals it.

Other sports have found a trick that works. Playoffs fill gyms, stadiums and ballparks. TV ratings and attendance rise and apathy falls.

As NASCAR chairman Brian France and President Mike Helton talk about the Chase on Thursday inside a Charlotte Convention Center ballroom, electronic billboards flash on their left and right.

On the billboards are brackets, which NASCAR calls the Chase Grid.

About brackets: Have any of you looked at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament brackets, so pretty and pristine before a game is played, filled them out and entered an office pool?

Of course you have, even if you know little about the sport. The Chase Grid means instead of picking Duke, Louisville and Wichita State to advance, you’ll pick Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and – you need an upset – Kyle Larson.

The new format puts a premium on winning. A driver can finish consistently well from February through September but come undone because he fails to finish first.

Is this fair?

Was it fair when previously undefeated Alabama, the Jimmie Johnson of college football (although not nearly as gracious) lost on the last play to Auburn?

Of course it was fair. The game transfixed a nation. Who didn’t talk about that game? Thursday, during Super Bowl week, many sports fans were talking about NASCAR.

The first round of the playoffs is the Challenger Round. Sixteen drivers will compete for 12 openings.

After three races (the second of them at Charlotte Motor Speedway), 12 drivers will compete for eight openings. After three more races eight drivers will compete for four openings.

The Final Four – nice ring to it, don’t you think?

The four will go into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida tied for first. But wait. Is it right for four drivers to come in even? Shouldn’t their work the past three races, or past three months, confer an advantage?

What will the score be at kickoff Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII?

As much as some fans resent change, it’s tough to avoid. North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway gave way to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway. A largely Southern sport went national and then faded back into the pack.

A playoff system failed to offer the oh-my-gawd excitement playoffs invariably do. So for the fourth time in 10 years, NASCAR has changed the Chase.

How does NASCAR know this change, among the most daring it has made, will work?

It doesn’t. But if you see an opportunity, and refuse to take it, where are you? You’re slamming your hand against a table, or a steering wheel, wondering why the distance between you and the NFL has grown larger yet again.

Asked about the risk, France says, “The risk would be not to do it.”

France is correct, and so are the changes.

I commend him, and the sport he leads, for having the courage to act.