NASCAR drastically overhauls Chase for the Sprint Cup format

Robert Laberge

An expanded field, eliminations and a winner-take-all season finale will all now be part of NASCAR’s new championship format.

Placing a greater importance on winning than ever before, NASCAR unveiled on Thursday a new playoff format that will determine its champion.

The system will create a winner-take-all battle to be contested among four drivers in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- a first in NASCAR history.

Further emphasizing winning, drivers will gain Chase for the Sprint Cup eligibility by securing a victory during the 26-race regular season.

After the regular season concludes Sept. 6 at Richmond International Raceway, the 15 drivers with the most victories will qualify for the Chase. The 16th and final spot will go to the driver highest in points without a win -- points will also fill out the field if 15 drivers haven't won.

The revised system was unveiled by NASCAR CEO Brian France on the final day of the annual weeklong media tour featuring the sport's preeminent drivers. France said the process of modifying the Chase began three years ago with the goal of creating a championship structure that rewarded risk-taking and did away with points racing.

The expectation is that drivers will now aggressively pursue wins more than they did under the old system, which stressed consistency and avoiding poor results. Subsequently, NASCAR hopes to see a rise in television ratings, which have typically sagged in the fall when competing head-to-head against the NFL.

"It's going to force the teams to take more risks in a race," France said. "... Because riding around and being pleased because the current format rewards consistency, those days are going to be pretty much over.

"The avid fans like it because they don't particularly care for points racing, even though they understand it. The casual fans don't understand points racing ... (This) clears all that off and then emphasizes winning, which everybody understands. So this is appealing to everybody."

The 10-race Chase field will also expand from 12 to 16 drivers and incorporate eliminations. Four drivers will be eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races, which sets up the one-race championship battle.

The first three races of the Chase will be known as the Challenger Round (events 27-29), followed by the Contender Round (30-32), and then the Eliminator Round (33-35). Point totals will be reset after every round, and whichever driver of the four finalists finishes the best at Homestead will be declared the champion.

To make winning even more all encompassing, any driver who wins a Chase race will automatically gain a berth into the next round. Meaning, a driver could win the opening playoff event at Chicagoland Speedway, then have trouble the next two weeks yet still advance.

A byproduct of using wins to qualify for the Chase as well as to advance in the playoffs will be the likelihood of increased animosity between drivers. This fact was acknowledged by France, who expects to see more contact and says NASCAR will officiate accordingly.

"Whether this format or any format, if it's late in the race and you've got a faster car, we expect some contact," he said. "Obviously there are limits, but that's always part of NASCAR to have some version of contact late in the race. Will this bring more of that? I'm sure it will to some level, but that's NASCAR."

Under the old Chase format, drivers collected points for 10 weeks, and whoever accumulated the most, whether they won a race or not, secured the championship.

This is the fourth major change to NASCAR's championship since the Chase was implemented before the 2004 season. In 2006, the field was expanded from 10 drivers to 12. Four years later, NASCAR changed the final slots to wild cards, awarded to the two drivers who had the most wins but were not already qualified.

Throughout the process of developing the just-announced format, NASCAR officials consulted with drivers, owners and other stakeholders seeking feedback. Many drivers have positively embraced the modifications.

Not everyone was as enthused about the new championship formula. In a radio interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Thursday morning, Kyle Busch said some of the changes were "good" but he had a "frank conversation" with NASCAR officials about the new system.

"Some of the things, I'm not in agreeance with," Busch said. "I think it's total B.S."

France understands not everyone will be onboard with the structure. In the long-run, however, he's confident the system will prove to be successful.

"This is appealing to everybody," France said. "We wouldn't be making the announcement if we thought it just did a little bit of good and possibly didn't help one area of NASCAR. We wouldn't have done it. This checks all the boxes."

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