NASCAR revamps playoff format

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR will make the most extensive changes to its split-season playoff format since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced in 2004, expanding the Chase field from 12 to 16 drivers and emphasizing winning races.

As part of NASCAR's announcement Thursday, a driver who wins a race during the course of the 26-event regular season will be granted entry to the Chase no matter where he or she ranks in the points standings.

Changes include:

• A victory in the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup -- a change that will put unprecedented importance on winning a Cup race during the season;

• Expanding the Chase field from 12 to 16 drivers, with those drivers advancing to what now will be known as the NASCAR Chase Grid;

• The number of drivers in contention for the championship will decrease after every three Chase races, from 16 to start in the Chase Grid to 12 after Chase race No. 3 to eight after Chase race No. 6 and to four after Chase race No. 9;

• The first three races of the Chase (Nos. 27-29 overall) will be known as the Challenger Round; races 30-32 will be known as the Contender Round; races 33-35 will be the Eliminator Round and race No. 36 will be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship;

• A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race clinches the winning driver a spot in the next round;

• Four drivers will enter the championship with a chance at the title, and the Cup will go to the highest finisher among those four in that final race.

• Overall points will reset to 2,000 for the Chase, with drivers getting three bonus points for each win during the regular season (but not Chase wins). Also, bonus points for leading a lap and for the driver who leads the most laps in a race will still be given in all but the final race of the season.

NASCAR believes that the changes will emphasize winning and make identifying a season champion easier to understand.

"NASCAR's core responsibility is to look down the road and provide fans with the highest level of competition in the world," Brian France, the sport's CEO, said. "We now have a system that makes every race matter more, it will promote compelling competition for wins all season long, and ultimately it will reward a very worthy champion at the end of each season with a best-of-the-best, winner-take-all showdown.

"The final race of the season will settle the NASCAR championship. No math, no bonus points for leading laps or previous wins. It's going to be the first of four drivers across the finish line. And you know what? That's as simple as it gets."

Over the past three years, France said, NASCAR consulted with the majority of its drivers, teams, sponsors and television partners before proceeding with the revised Chase format.

"We have millions of fans, some very loud and passionate fans, especially when we change anything," he said. "The vast majority of the fans we communicated with loved this because they really don't like points racing. It remains important, but it is a lot less important."

NASCAR president Mike Helton's perspective on the revised Chase format was a mix of personal and professional.

"I've been a NASCAR fan for 50 years. There are times I have to take my avid-fan hat off and make tough decisions," Helton said. "This format is exciting to me professionally and even more exciting to me as an avid fan.

"This all didn't happen overnight. The announcement we're making today is evidence, I think, that 65 years late, NASCAR still wants to be relevant and still wants to be a leading edge form of sports. This is how you do that -- you move the gauge, and the level of excitement, by making big decisions."

Reaction to the changes from competitors was mixed. Some drivers were highly critical, including Roush Fenway Racing star Carl Edwards, while others were more positive in their assessment.

"Up until Homestead [the final race], I don't think it's way different," six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. "You change the odds by having 16 cars in the Chase, but in the postseason, you have to win. The champion has always won races, and you have to win a lot.

"The biggest change in my mind is one race, four cars. Homestead is a good track for us. We've run well when we've needed to, and other years we've been able to just protect our position. This is definitely going to change the way we race there."

Edwards said Wednesday that he preferred the old-fashioned way.

"My simple preference would just be to determine the champion over the course of the whole season," Edwards told reporters at the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour. "The way I understand it, all they want to do is crown a champion that wins races, that drives his guts out and it puts on a really exciting show for everyone. I'm all for that.

"I'd just hate to see some guy have a flat tire or a blown engine or something in a three-race stretch and be knocked out, then come back and dominate at Homestead. I think that would be tough."

Kyle Busch disputed NASCAR's statement that it had consulted with all Cup drivers as well as key personnel from teams, sponsors and TV partners.

"They told us in the meeting that they met with every driver, every team, maybe every sponsor, and that everybody was pretty excited and pumped up about it," Busch said. "Well, I never got a phone call. So I would say that I wasn't in that, and I don't know how many other drivers didn't get a phone call. They did go and visit with [Joe Gibbs Racing]; they talked to Joe and J.D. about it."

Busch was generally positive about the altered Chase format, but he was unhappy about how NASCAR implemented the changes.

"When they tell you, 'Here's what we're thinking,' you don't really have time to bring questions or think about ways in which you can try to make it better," he said. "You've got to have a couple days or a week. Then they say, 'We're going to have this meeting in Charlotte.' We have our whole list of questions and things we want answered or want to suggest, and it doesn't mean anything. They've already made the decision. It just hasn't been announced yet, but it's coming. So essentially it's a pointless redo of a meeting.

"I'm just a little disappointed in that, because they say they take into account everybody's thoughts and considerations, and in reality, the decision comes from the 12 or 14 people they have in their circle."

Several drivers compared the new Chase format to elimination formats used in stick-and-ball sports and expressed excitement about the opportunity to come on strong at the end of the season.

"I think it's really cool because you see it all the time in the NFL," Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola said. "A team like the New York Giants a couple years ago can go 8-8 and make it in [as a] wild card, but then have a hot stretch in the playoffs and get to the end and win a Super Bowl. That's something I genuinely think can happen in our sport."

Almirola's boss, NASCAR legend Richard Petty, admitted that he is resigned to accept whatever changes the sport's decision-making body deems appropriate.

"It's another PR deal, OK?" Petty said. "NASCAR wanted to do something to cause a little more interest in the way the point standings are viewed. I think I won championships with five different ways of counting the points. In the long run, no matter how you cut the points out, you're pretty well going to have the best guy winning the championship.

"It's just something different, just another change. Whether it's the right format or not, it's the format that football and baseball use, and it's pretty successful there. So let's give it a try here."

Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in the history of IndyCar racing and owner of the car that Brad Keselowski drove to the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, thinks NASCAR was forced to take action in the wake of a general decline in attendance and TV ratings over the past decade.

"Change and evolution are important," Penske said. "Look at our businesses, look at our country. There's no question the sport has to change. We have to attract new people, younger people, into the sport. Some of the things we thought were great many years ago clearly are different."

With three rounds of eliminations and a winner-take-all finale, the way that drivers and teams race during the Chase will change. The way teams prepare for the Chase also will change.

"The key, obviously, is to win once in every three races because that gets you locked into the next round," Busch said. "Separating those three race segments out, you want to go test at those tracks or any tracks like them where you can go testing without wasting a test day."

Penske thinks the new format will achieve its stated goals of creating more attention and excitement in the Chase and determining a worthy Sprint Cup champion.

"Obviously the Chase format is going to give a greater number of drivers a chance to compete, and then the shootout after every three races will make it exciting," he said. "The format is going to be amazing. Wait until you see what happens at Homestead. You'll have four cars there with the same opportunity, and they got there on performance. They'll have been the best four cars for the last nine races."

France downplayed the notion that some or all of the four finalists could encounter trouble at Homestead, allowing one driver to lie back and luck into the title.

"That can happen now, and there are plenty of scenarios we could talk about all day," he said. "The most likely scenario is that the best teams will not cruise into a championship.

"The biggest risk would be to not do anything. When something like this checks every box, you have to move forward. The more people understand it, the better it gets. Everything is designed around what people love about NASCAR -- close, tight, tough competition that emphasizes winning, and this does it all."