Charlotte, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - NASCAR unveiled on Thursday sweeping changes to its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format in 2014, expanding the field of drivers/teams from 12 to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to determine its champion.
Under the new format, a win during the 26-race regular season all but guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase. After the regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond, 16 drivers/teams will qualify for what will now be called the "NASCAR Chase Grid."
"This new format rewards winning," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said during his annual state of the sport speech. "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 new Chase will be thrilling and easy to understand. It will help drive our sport's competition to a whole new level."
The number of drivers in contention for the Sprint Cup Series championship will decrease after every three Chase races. The first three events in the playoffs (Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover) will be known as the "Challenger Round."
After Dover, the Chase field is trimmed to 12. Chase races 4-6 (Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega) will be referred to as the "Contender Round." The field will then be cut to eight for the "Eliminator Round," which will include Chase events 7-9 (Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix).
Just four drivers/teams will remain in the Chase when the series concludes its season on Nov. 16 at Homestead. The highest finishing driver among the final four in the last Chase race will win the Sprint Cup championship.
Bonus points for laps led will not apply in the season-finale at Homestead, so the official finishing position alone will decide the champion.
"The final event of the season will settle the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship," France said. "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."
The top-15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will become eligible for the Chase, provided they have finished in the top-30 in points and attempted to qualify for every race, except in rare instances. The 16th position in the Chase will go to the points leader after Richmond (race No. 26) if he or she does not have a victory.
In the event that there are 16 or more different winners after Richmond, the only winless driver who can earn a Chase spot would be the points leader. If there are fewer than 16 different winners following Richmond, the remaining Chase grid positions will go to those winless drivers highest in points.
Prior to the start of the Chase, all drivers will have their points adjusted to 2,000. NASCAR has used this points format to begin the Chase each season since 2011.
Those drivers who win at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover during the Challenger Round will automatically advance to the Contender Round. The 12 drivers in the Contender Round will have their points reset to 3,000.
Any one of the 12 drivers in the Contender Round that wins at Kansas, Charlotte or Talladega is guaranteed of making it into the Eliminator Round. The points are reset to 4,000 for each of the eight drivers who qualify for the Eliminator Round.
The top-eight drivers will vie for the four positions available in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Round, also known as the Title Round, at Homestead. Any one of the eight drivers who scores the victory at Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix will advance to the final round. The top-four will have their points reset to 5,000 for Homestead.
NASCAR instituted the Chase for its premier series in 2004. The sanctioning body has spent the past several years discussing and planning a new playoff system, in hopes of improving competition, bettering television ratings and track attendance and attracting more race fans.
France said, "For more than three years, we've been contemplating ways to elevate the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship format in the following ways. 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 Chase format is one of two major changes that NASCAR has announced this month for its upcoming season.
Last week, NASCAR revealed its new qualifying format for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, making it similar to knockout qualifying used for Formula One and IndyCar Series road/street course races.
At NASCAR racetracks measuring 1.25 miles or longer, qualifying will consist of three rounds. Tracks measuring less than 1.25 miles will feature just two rounds.
"Our new qualifying format was something that we've talked about for several years," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "I won't sit here and tell you that we wouldn't sit and watch Formula One qualifying, because we do. And did we pick up something off of that might be useful? Probably so. But ours is ours, and ours is the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series qualifying now."
Many drivers and teams posted their reaction to the revised Chase format after the announcement was made.
"Winning has always been important in @NASCAR @Sprint Cup but wow just became THE way to win championship! Exciting!" Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon tweeted.
Stewart-Haas Racing posted on its Twitter account, "Emphasis on winning in 2014. No problem. SHR's driver lineup has 95 point-paying Sprint Cup wins among them."
"Looking fwd 2 @NASCAR new chase format. Emphasis on winning is GREAT! It's going to be critical 2 also win in the 1st 3 races of the #chase," tweeted Kurt Busch, who won the inaugural Chase in '04.
Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship last year, beating Matt Kenseth by 19 points. Kenseth finished second while Johnson placed ninth in the last race of the season at Homestead.
The 2014 Sprint Cup season begins with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23. Johnson is the defending winner of that race.