Sweeping changes to NASCAR Chase will culminate in a one-race shootout
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It couldn't be any simpler.
The highest finisher among four eligible drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will win the championship.
No bonus for leading laps. No bonus points for leading the most laps. The one driver who finishes ahead of the other three takes home the trophy.
How the four drivers get to that final race with a chance to win the title also changes radically under a new format announced Thursday by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France during the final event of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
First and most obvious, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup expands from 12 to 16 drivers, the second time in the 10-year history of NASCAR's 10-race playoff that the field of eligible drivers has been increased.
Win one of the first 26 races, and chances are, you're in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a 10-race playoff that will determine the champion through a series of eliminations. The points leader after 26 races also gets a spot in the Chase, whether or not he or she has won a race.
France noted that the new format elevates exponentially the importance of winning races throughout the season.
"For more than three years, we've been contemplating ways to elevate the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship format in the following ways: first, we've talked about putting greater emphasis on winning races, something our fans overwhelmingly want.
"Second, make competing and running for a championship much simpler and much simpler to understand; third, expand opportunities for more drivers to compete for the championship while ultimately rewarding the most worthy, battle‑tested champion."
If more than 16 different drivers win races during the regular season, then the tiebreaker is standing in the points. If fewer than 16 different drivers win races, the remaining Chase positions will be filled by winless drivers highest in the standings.
In the 10 years of the Chase format, the highest number of different winners in the first 26 races has been 15. Last year, 13 different drivers won regular-season races.
"This new format rewards winning. It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule," France said. "It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line.
"The new Chase will be thrilling, easy to understand, and help drive our sports competition to a whole new level."
After the first three events in the Chase, called the Challenger Round, the four drivers with the lowest points totals, after a reset to start the Chase, will be eliminated. However, any Chase driver who wins one of the first three races -- at Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover -- advances to the next round, regardless of position in the standings.
Then the points are reset, and the remaining drivers start the final seven races on equal footing.
The same rules apply to the next three races (the Contender Round), at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega. Four more drivers will be dropped from championship contention, based on their standing in the points, but any one of the 12 remaining Chase drivers after Dover can advance to the next round (the Eliminator round) by winning one of the three races.
In the Contender Round, the Chase field is cut to eight drivers and points are reset again, with remaining eligible drivers starting the final four races on equal terms.
The next three races, at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, will determine which four drivers advance to the season finale with a chance to win the title. The same rules apply to the Eliminator Round. Win one of the three races and advance. If none of the final eight posts a victory, the top four in the standings move on to the deciding race.
France said the move was designed to minimize the efficacy of points racing, and the system now in place was the product of three years of research and planning bolstered by input from fans and conversations with all key stakeholders.
Asked whether the changes were a risky move, France had a ready answer.
"The biggest risk would be not to do it," he said. "When something checks every box and it's so clear, and we've done our homework, hopefully, in how we've designed it. We've talked to all of our industry and most importantly, our fans.
"Because, if they don't like what we do, then nothing matters. And, overwhelmingly, the more they understand it, the better it gets. So the risk for us -- it's always for us not to figure out how to elevate racing and competition."
To be eligible for the Chase, a driver must be in the top 30 in points after 26 races and must have attempted to qualify for each race.
An exception could occur, NASCAR President Mike Helton said, if a driver misses races for medical reasons -- such as the concussion that sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr. for two events in 2012 -- and remains eligible for the Chase under all other criteria.
Drivers who are eliminated after each round of the Chase will compete for fifth through 16th positions in the final standings. The eliminated driver who scores the most points in the final 10 races will finish fifth, and so forth.
ESPN, which will broadcast nine of the 10 of the Chase races next year (with the Charlotte night race carried on parent network ABC), reacted enthusiastically to the announcement.
"We're extremely pleased that NASCAR has chosen to implement this format," ESPN Vice President of League Sports Programming Julie Sobieski said in a statement.
"We have long felt that there was a greater opportunity within the Chase and are in favor of an elimination format, which has been most effective in American sports. We look forward to bringing the Chase to NASCAR fans this fall."