In the eight previous editions of NASCAR's Chase, it has been proven there are a variety of ways to win the Sprint Cup Series championship. And if you ask the drivers, there is no definitive way for a driver to stake his claim to the title.
"It all depends on what the 11 other guys that you are racing with do each week," defending champion Tony Stewart said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway. "It strictly is dictated by that. There isn't a set formula. There is no blueprint. There is no certain way of doing it. It's just who can put together the 10 best weeks."
But while it may be a vague blueprint, there is at least an outline of what drivers must do to win. Here are three specific areas drivers must excel in if they are to drive away with the championship:
1. Get bonus points
Bonus points are huge – and that's an understatement. Look no further than what transpired a year ago when Stewart edged Carl Edwards by the slimmest of margins.
On three occasions in the Chase, Stewart led the most laps in a race and in doing so procured three additional bonus points. That was in contrast to Edwards, who led the most laps just once. Ultimately, those two extra points for Stewart proved to be pivotal, as the pair ended the year tied atop the standings.
"I think probably the one thing that everybody is probably more focused on after last year is the fact that every single point is going to be a big deal," Stewart said. "...You might stay out on a caution just to lead a lap...if you are not running well. If you get in a crash, you can get that thing fixed and you are going to fight for every spot you can get just to get that one extra point."
2) Win a race
Only once in the Chase Era has the eventual champion not won at least one race during the Chase (Tony Stewart, 2005). While it's unclear how many wins a driver needs (Stewart won five last year and Jimmie Johnson once won four in a row), the minimum is one.
That's happened in seven of the eight Chases, so a driver shouldn't expect to win the championship if he can't get to Victory Lane at least once in the next 10 weeks.
3) Only one mulligan
The thing that really can make or break a driver's championship effort is avoiding multiple mistakes or bad luck that can lead to poor finishes.
Only once since the inception of the Chase has an eventual champion had more than one finish outside the top 20. And when Johnson did that in 2006 (he had two mulligans), he was only able to rally thanks to a five-race stretch where he finished no worse than second.
But Johnson is the exception and not the norm, and the point system in place today makes it even tougher for a driver to overcome a series of bad races.
So in many ways, Stewart is right: There is no true blueprint for championship success. But while the above three factors don't foretell who is going to win the title, it might reveal who isn't.