CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR unveiled changes to its playoff system on Thursday, and the Chase to the Sprint Cup field has been expanded from 12 to 16 drivers and puts a greater emphasis on winning throughout the season.
It implements a round-by-round advancement which goes from 16 down to four drivers for a winner-take-all championship at the final race of the season.
“We wanted to change the proportion more for winning,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said. “It’s going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin. Everything is focused around winning, and that’s what our fans want.”
“The new Chase will be thrilling, easy to understand. It will drive our sport’s competition to a new level.”
A victory in one of the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase, which is good news for tracks like Bristol Motor Speedway which doesn’t host a Chase event.
“It was previously a risk-reward balance which you understood,” said Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway executive vice president. “Now they’ve got to win, so you get up on the wheel and you go after the win. In March for the Food City 500, I believe you will see drivers trying to establish an early season win to lock themselves into the Chase. In August, fans will see a sense of desperation from the drivers who have not managed to qualify for one of the Chase spots. It should be exciting.”
Like the current system, the Chase grid will be set at Richmond, at the end of a 26-race regular season. The field of 16 will be determined by the drivers with the greatest number of wins after the first 26 races. The rest of the grid will consist of points leaders without a victory.
A driver must be in the top 30 of points and have attempted to qualify for all the first 26 races to qualify for the Chase.
“The avid fans like it because they don’t particularly care for points racing,” France said. “The biggest risk would be not to do it. If the fans don’t like what we do, then nothing matters. Everything is designed about what you love about NASCAR, the tight racing, the close competition.”
The field will be whittled from 16 to 12 after the first three races in the Chase, called the Challenger Round. A win automatically advances a driver to the next round.
Points are then reset for the Contender Round where eight drivers advance with winning again an automatic qualifier. Those eight will
face off in the Eliminator Round for the next three races before four drivers advance to the “Sprint Cup Championship.”
The highest finisher among the four remaining drivers will win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
The overhaul to the system was met with rave reviews by track promoters.
“With NASCAR’s changes to the point system, I think we can safely say points racing is dead,” Charlotte Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith said. “When it comes to race day, winning is the only thing that matters -- period. That makes every single race critical. I think the changes are probably the best thing to happen in NASCAR in the last 10 years and I’m looking forward to seeing how the increased incentive to win plays out.”
It is the second major change for NASCAR’s top three series in recent days. It came just one week after the sanctioning body revamped its qualifying for all Sprint Cup races with the exception of the Daytona 500.
Officials announced a group qualifying format, which includes three rounds at the larger tracks and two rounds at the short tracks, to replace the single-car laps previously used.
Some have worried if the changes are too much, too soon. It is the fourth change to the Chase in the last 10 years.
“We have some loud and passionate fans, especially when we change anything,” France said. “Most of the fans we’ve communicated with, they like this. Things evolve. If you look at other leagues, the BCS has evolved.
“We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter more, diminishes points racing and puts a premium on winning races, which is exactly what fans want”