The NASCAR Series has announced a dramatic change to the Chase format used to decide the winner of the Sprint Cup Series championship, with the aim being to make winning a race a top priority throughout the year.
Previously the Chase split the contenders after 26 races of the 36-race season, elevating the top ten drivers in the points together with two wild cards based on the number of wins during the season to date. The championship was then traditionally decided by the points accrued by the dozen drivers from that point forward to the final round at Homestead-Miami in November.
But that will all change in 2014, with a brand new format for the final ten races of the year which starts with an increase in Chase contenders to 16, but then eliminates four of that field after three more races. It then reduces the number still further after the next three, ultimately leaving just four drivers still in contention going into the season finale.
“We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter even more, diminishes points racing, puts a premium on winning races and concludes with a best-of-the-best, first-to-the-finish line showdown race – all of which is exactly what fans want,” explained Brian France, NASCAR's chairman and CEO.
“We have looked at a number of concepts for the last three years through fan research, models and simulations, and also maintained extensive dialogue with our drivers, teams and partners," he added. "The new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be thrilling, easy to understand and help drive our sport's competition to a whole new level."
The initial field of 16 will be the set by the points leader together with the top 15 drivers with the most wins up to the 26th race of the season at Richmond in September. If there are more race winners than Chase spaces available then the tie-breaker will be the number of wins and the number of points the drivers has earned; if there are fewer drivers, then the remaining spaces will be allocated to the highest points scorers not to have won a race.
The 16 drivers who progress will still have their points reset to 2000 with a small allowance of three points per win to date, as has been the case in past years. They go forward to the first part of the new-look Chase, dubbed the 'Challenger Round', which will consist of the next three races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover.
The winners of those races will automatically progress to the next round which will comprise 12 drivers in total, with the remaining spots decided by championship points. Four drivers will be eliminated from the title battle at this point. The 12 who go through will have their points adjusted to 3000 for the duration of the 'Contender Round' held at next three races at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega, after which the same elimination process will see the top eight race winners and points leaders progress to the third 'Eliminator Round' held at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, all of them getting a temporary points boost to 4000.
The final cut-off will come into effect after the penultimate Cup race of the year, and halve the remaining eight contenders down to four going into the season finale at Homestead. With the temporary points boost for the quartet now up to 5000 and no bonus points on offer in the final event, it means that all of the last four go into the final race on completely even footing, and whichever of the foursome finishes highest in that race will be duly crowned champion.
"No math, no bonus points," confirmed France. "It's as simple as it gets."
The aim of the new system is to place much more emphasis on race wins, and also to extend the tension of the 'cut-off' eliminations right through the Chase play-offs while ensuring that no one can lock up the title before the chequered flag at Homestead, regardless of how much they may dominate the rest of the year.
In theory, a driver could win 35 of the Cup races in 2014 and still not be crowned champion at the end if he crashes out at Homestead.
All the championship finalists will be assured of finishing in the top four; however, other drivers eliminated from the Chase before the final round will have their points reset to the traditional 2000 level (together with any points they have accrued in play-off races in the meantime) meaning that a driver who was eliminated from the Chase early on could still end up clinching fifth place in the final driver standings.
While there are undoubtedly questions, rough edges, anomalies and 'kinks' that will need sorting out over the coming weeks, the system certainly seems more robust in securing its aims than the contentious 'double points' final round idea being trialled in F1 in 2014. NASCAR officials admitted that F1's qualifying format with its elimination stages had been one of the models that had helped influence the new system
France said that most drivers had been "mostly positive", although Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch earlier criticised the consultation process the series had used to sound out drivers over the revisions to the Chase and said that there were significant elements he didn't agree with, although these weren't elaborated in detail ahead of NASCAR's official announcement of the Chase format revamp on Thursday afternoon.
Others in the sport were more supportive of the initiative.
“This is a great move at the right time. More than ever, the focus in every race during the season will be on winning, and I can see this changing race strategy everywhere the teams go,” said Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports, Inc. "As for the 10-race Chase format, the changes will certainly be good for Dover [International Speedway] in September, and the eliminations should create the same level of excitement we just witnessed in the recent NFL play-offs. The fans will love this."