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NASCAR Changes The Chase

A win at the Brickyard on July 27 will have an even bigger impact for any full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver because that victory will lock him into NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.

NASCAR announced a completely revamped format for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship that will expand the field to 16 drivers and will become an elimination format that will culminate with four drivers in a “First-to-the-Finish” finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. All four of those drivers will advance from the “Eliminator Round” with the points reset in a simplified championship without bonus points in the Homestead finale. That means the driver out of the four that makes it to the finish line first wins the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

In past seasons, the driver that went on to win the season championship has often won the annual NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, eight drivers that won at the Brickyard in the 20-year history of that race have won the title the same season.

The top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will advance into the NASCAR Chase Grid as long as they have finished in the top 30 in points and attempted to qualify for every race, although NASCAR has a caveat known as “except in rare instances.” The 16th Chase position goes to the points leader after race No. 26 if they do not have a victory. In the unlikely event there are 16 or more winners over 26 races, the only winless driver that can earn a Chase Grid spot would be the points leader after 26 races.

Fewer than 16 different winners in the first 26 races in the remaining Chase Grid positions go to those winless drivers highest in points. If there are 16 or more winners the ties will be broken by number of wins followed by Sprint Cup points.

Prior to the start of the Chase, all Chase Grid drivers have their points reset to 2,000 with three additional bonus points added to their total for each win in the first 26 races.

That will determine the seeding. And once the Chase starts, then it really gets interesting.

The first three races in the Chase will be called the Challenger Round. If a driver in the Chase wins a Challenger Round race they automatically advance to the next round. After the third race of the Challenger Round four drivers will be eliminated and the field will be at 12. The second round is the Contender Round, and if a driver in the top 12 wins a race they automatically advance to the next round. After the Contender Round the field is cut to the top eight.

The third round of races will be the Eliminator Round, and if a driver in the top eight in points wins a race they advance to the next round. At the end of that round that field is cut in half down to the final four that will advance to the First-to-the-Finish Championship Finale. There will be no bonus points in the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which means the official finishing position will determine the champion.

Winning races has now been replaced by consistency and that was the intent when NASCAR Chairman Brian France decided to radically change the Chase and make it a true Playoff elimination system.

“For more than three years we've been contemplating ways to elevate the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship format in the following ways,” France said on January 30 at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour at the Charlotte Convention Center. “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.

“We've looked at a number of concepts through fan research, models and simulations, and also maintained extensive dialogue with our drivers, teams, tracks and all of our partners.

“We now have arrived at a format that makes every race matter more.  It will promote compelling competition for wins all season long.  Ultimately, it will reward a very worthy champion at the end of each season, with the best of the best winner?take?all showdown.

“The final event of the season will settle the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.  No math, no bonus points for leading laps, previous wins.  It's going to be the first of four drivers to cross the finish line, and that will define the NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion.  You know what, that's as simple as it gets.

“This new format rewards winning.  It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule.  It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line.”

The final year of NASCAR’s traditional season-long championship points system was in 2003 when Matt Kenseth won the title in the next-to-last race of the season at Rockingham, N.C. He had a season filled with consistency, but with just one victory NASCAR decided to make a change.

Then came The Chase, which would be a 10-driver format that would determine the championship in the final 10 races of the season beginning in 2004, and the result was a dramatic finale with five drivers still in contention to win the championship in the final race before Kurt Busch prevailed.

Two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart would become the first driver to win championships under the old season-long format in 2002 and The Chase in 2005. And beginning in 2006, Jimmie Johnson would begin his spectacular run that has established himself as perhaps NASCAR’s greatest driver with four Brickyard 400 wins and six Sprint Cup titles.

But France wasn’t satisfied when a driver could go into the Homestead finale and merely have to protect a lead to clinch the title. He wanted a system where that driver had to race for the win in order to become the champion, such as Stewart had to do in 2011.

“It started three years ago when we first talked about some version of an elimination format,” France said. “But that in itself wasn't appealing to us because we also wanted to deal with the points racing and change the proportion to making winning more important every race.  So when we got all the facts together and we talked about how to qualify for the Chase, this checked every box that we could have possibly looked at.

“It's going to elevate racing.  It's going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin.  It's going to change the strategies.  It's going to allow for drivers, and we'll talk about more of this, if they have a bad race in the Chase, in the current Chase, it's very difficult for them to move on.  This will be different.  Everything is focused around winning, and that is exactly what our fans want.

“At the end of the day, although consistency is important in our sport, and it remains important, it's just less important, so they like that.  They understand winner?take?all formats, and they understand being the best down the stretch.  You can note any of the other examples of that where Tony Stewart one year made that incredible run.  They love those moments.  This is going to elevate the opportunity for more drivers to have those moments.”

The driver who has excelled the most during the Chase era is Johnson, and his accomplishments during that time are historic. At first the driver admitted surprise that this was the format that NASCAR decided because he had also heard other options were being discussed.

“We had several options, including not doing anything at all,” France said. “We had conveyed these options at one time or another with all the teams. The big thing is winning.  We've been talking about that for a while.  The reason we're talking about that so much is our fans are telling us we really value consistency.  But, boy, do we like it when there is more risk?taking and more incentive to win.

“The drivers will race to whatever format we have, and if that's a consistency?based model, that's how they will try to adapt because that may be the best way to achieve their goal.  This is pretty clear.  You have to win, and you have to compete at a higher level.  You're probably going to have to take more chances and different strategies are going to unfold, but that's why we did it.

“The biggest risk would be not to do it.  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 is for us ?? it's always for us not to figure out how to elevate racing and competition.

“We've talked about our rules packages.  We're hard at work on that as well.  And everything is designed around what you know about NASCAR.  Close, tight, tough competition, and this does it all.”

France has always wanted a “Game Seven Moment” such as what sometimes occurs in the World Series, The Stanley Cup and The NBA Finals. But those moments don’t happen every year because often times the best-of-seven is determined in four, five or six games.

“Everybody has their own version,” France said. “College basketball has a tournament, somebody else has a playoff system, somebody else has a multiple game series.  This is unique to us.  It captures some of the similarities, naturally, but it's very unique to us.

“Those four teams who make it to Homestead Miami will still have a full field of race cars to maneuver around, contend with.  That's part of winning it.  You've got to beat everybody and then some.  So this is unique to us.  As I say, it elevates this championship at every event in a way that's never been possible for us.”

For the drivers, their mission is simple – win races and don’t worry about consistency because checkered flags matter the most.

“Essentially your best way of going throughout the Chase is to win a race in every three races -- that obviously gets you locked into the next round,” said driver Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing. “Being able to do that is key.  Separating those three races out into each one -- can you go test at those tracks?  Are there tracks like it you can go test at without wasting a test at those tracks? Those are the things that everybody is going to be looking at and trying to figure out their best strategy and best way of getting to and achieving the ultimate goal of winning races in those races."

Busch and his team would have liked to have seen a change before the system was announced on January 30, however.

“One of them is that you want to reward winning, but last year the champion would have been Dale Earnhardt Jr., who didn't win a race,” Busch said. “How does that reward winning?  Our book, Joe's (Gibbs, team owner) book, his thought was -- so when you have every reset, let's reset with the guy who has the most wins in the season.  So if it's Matt Kenseth who has seven wins or even a Jimmie Johnson who has five wins, they automatically get a seed into the next seeding all the way through the Chase unless you get beat.  If you have five wins -- Jimmie Johnson has five wins and I get my sixth win, then I'm the first one seeded all the way through the Chase -- it changes based on how many people have the most wins.  If you're tied for most wins, go to most seconds.

“That way at least the guy that has the most wins can be considered all the way through and you're rewarding the guy with wins.  That was the only thing we asked for them (NASCAR) to look at and re-do and change, because then you would have had a different champion besides a guy that didn't have any wins at Homestead.”

When Vince Lombardi was coaching the Green Bay Packers he uttered one of the most famous quotes in sports history “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” That can now be said about the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and that will never be more evident than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27 when the winner of the Brickyard will not only get to “Kiss the Bricks” but get into the Chase.

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