After 26 races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, the drivers, teams and officials are heading into unexplored territory from this point on with a brand new Chase format coming into operation for the remaining ten weeks of competition that will decide this year's title winner.

The new format has already made its presence felt by determining how the drivers claim a place in the championship play-offs. Where there were previously 12 drivers making it through to the Chase in past years, this time the number has risen to 16 with 13 of those spots going to the drivers who have won at least one race so far this year. The final three spots have been allocated to the remaining drivers with the highest points standings.

Sounds simple enough so far? Then here's where things start to get a little more interesting.

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Having got through to the Chase, all 16 drivers still in contention have their points set to 2000, plus an extra three points for each race win so far in 2014. That means that with his victory at Richmond International Raceway this weekend, Brad Keselowski becomes the top seed with 2012 points going into the first race at Chicagoland Speedway next Sunday.

That puts Keselowski ahead of a four-way tie for second between his Penske team mate Joey Logano and a Hendrick trio consisting of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson who are all on 2009 points. Starting at the back are Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman on 2000 points since they have yet to win a race this year.

However, unlike previous years it's no longer a straight ten-race mini-season from now until the final race of the year with the title going to the person with the most points. Instead, NASCAR has taken a leaf out of the successful and popular qualifying group elimination format to keep the interest and suspense going right through to the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.

This season the ten races will be broken down into three rounds and one season finale title decider. The first round has been dubbed the Challenger Round and consists of the races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover; the second is the Contender Round comprised of races at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega; and the third is the Eliminator Round with events at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.

At the end of the Challenger Round on September 28, four drivers will be cut from the Chase line-up and returned to the general 'pool'. The way drivers will make it through to the next round will be according to points standings, but any of the Chase contenders winning any one of the three races will gain immediate progression. Those who go through will have their points equalised out at 3000 regardless of their previous relative standings or number of wins.

The same will happen at the end of the Contender Round on October 19 when the field will be further reduced to eight drivers whose points will be levelled up to 4000; and finally on November 9 the number of Chase contenders will be cut to a final four who will go into the last race of the year equal on 5000 points, meaning that the final race - which will do away with any bonus points for laps led - will decide who becomes champion based purely on which of the quartet crosses the line ahead of the rest at Homestead.

In the meantime, all is not entirely lost for those drivers who did not make it through to the latter rounds of the Chase. As drivers are eliminated from the Contender and Eliminator rounds during the play-offs, they lose the points boost that marked them out as Chase contenders and return to the scores in the 2000s, and can still amass enough points to finish as high as fifth place at the end of the season by overhauling those in front of them.

The new system means a complete rethink in approach for the drivers and teams who previously relied on consistency to get them through the Chase by allowing them to pull out an increasing lead over the course of ten races. That had led to a safety-first strategy with drivers knowing that they could only afford at most one bad race if they were to remain in contention to the end.

With the new format the emphasis is now on winning, which guarantees progression to the next round; and since any points lead is wiped out after every three-race block of races there's less to be lost by taking risks in pursuit of that all-important victory. With the final race seeing the final four drivers take the green flag dead level on points, it also means that the identity of the 2014 Cup champion will be totally up in the air right until the moment the chequered flag comes out at Homestead.

"It's an interesting layout for the next 10 races, all the teams have different strengths and weaknesses," summarised Keselowski. "I think we have a lot of tracks coming up that are in ours over the next few weeks. It's really hard to say, it seems like everybody seems to find another level when it comes time for the Chase. There could be somebody out there sleeping.

"I think the Gibbs cars have been performing really well, at least at Atlanta and the weeks prior to that. They could certainly be an issue and a threat as well," he mused. "I don't know. Nobody knows. I do know we have different strengths and weaknesses. As to which ones are the strengths you need to have and which ones are the weaknesses you can get away with or vice versa, time will tell."

Whether the system will work successfully or end up in controversy is another matter. It's theoretically possible but not exactly desirable that this year's Cup champion could crash out in six Chase races but progress purely by winning one race in each of the three rounds, and then claim the title with a 40th place finish at Homestead if all of his rivals crash out at the start.

But so far the new Chase format has worked surprisingly smoothly in determining the 16-driver line-up, and if the rest of the year goes as well then it should deliver a compelling climax to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

2014 Chase standings going into Chicagoland

1. Brad Keselowski 2012pts
2. Jeff Gordon 2009pts
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2009pts
4. Jimmie Johnson 2009pts
5. Joey Logano 2009pts
6. Kevin Harvick 2006pts
7. Carl Edwards 2006pts
8. Kyle Busch 2003pts
9. Denny Hamlin 2003pts
10. Kurt Busch 2003pts
11. Kasey Kahne 2003pts
12. Aric Almirola 2003pts
13. AJ Allmendinger 2003pts
14. Matt Kenseth 2000pts
15. Greg Biffle 2000pts
16. Ryan Newman 2000pts

See full pre-Chase Sprint Cup championship standings from Richmond International Speedway