A week after revamping their qualifying procedures, NASCAR officials Thursday revamped the championship playoff format, announcing the expansion of the field for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship from 12 drivers to 16 and creating three elimination rounds that will reduce the Chase grid to four drivers for a winner-take-all finale.
Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO, said the changes were implemented to create added drama in the Chase by emphasizing winning throughout the season and not just in the 26 races leading up to the cutoff race in Richmond.
“We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter even more,’’ France said in a statement. “[It] 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 the fans want.’’
France said the changes were three years in the making.
“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,’’ France said. “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 tweaks NASCAR is making are similar to those implemented by the PGA Tour with its FedEx Cup, which pares the field of championship contenders after each playoff event. Ironically, the PGA Tour implemented its playoff format after taking note of the initial buzz NASCAR created by adopting the Chase playoff format.
“In my opinion, this is one of the most significant changes in NASCAR history — I love it,’’ said Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which hosts the second race in the Chase, the Sylvania 300. “The ‘wow’ factor of our 10-race playoff format just went up tenfold.’’
Once the expanded Chase Grid is determined following the regular-season’s 26th race, the field will be pared to four drivers in three phases. The first elimination will come after the Challenger Round (Races 27-29). The 12-man field will then be reduced to eight after the Contender Round (Races 30-32), with the final four set after the Eliminator Round (Races 33-35).
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship will be determined in a winner-take-all race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher among the four drivers who survived the three elimination rounds will be crowned the Sprint Cup champion.
A victory during the regular season will all but guarantee a driver of a berth in the Chase Grid, while a victory in the Chase automatically allows a driver to advance to the next round.
“Through the years, we have seen other professional and college sports expand participation in their respective playoffs,’’ Gappens said. “It has been extremely popular with fans and has created some outstanding drama, excitement, and story lines.
“Think about March Madness, Game 7’s and the NFC-AFC championship games that featured four teams and two great games to set the stage for this Sunday’s Super Bowl. Competition is about winning. I hope I never hear a driver again say, ‘It was a good points day.’
“This new format should eliminate that from everybody’s vocabulary.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.