NASCAR changes championship format, with winner-take-all finale

NASCAR is changing the way it crowns its champion — consistency is out; winner-take-all is in.

This year, four drivers will go into the final race with a chance to be the champion, and the first one across the finish line will win the title.

“The new Chase will be thrilling, easy to understand and help drive our sports competition to a whole new level,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Thursday in announcing the new playoff format. “Everything is focused around winning, and that is exactly what our fans want.”

It is a major break from tradition in Sprint Cup racing, where consistent finishes meant as much as wins over an eight-month season. The points-per-place format rewarded the driver who consistently finished the highest all year, but late-season drama was rare.

“It’s a throwback to old-school racing,” said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage. “I worked with Bobby Allison when he won the championship in ’83 — you thought about points, but more than anything, you thought about beating guys on Sundays. You won races, the points took care of themselves.”

The new system replaces the “Chase for the Championship” format in place since 2004, where 10 then 12 drivers were eligible for the championship based on the points they racked up in the final 10 races.

Now, 16 drivers — making up a “Chase Grid” — can shoot for the title. But every three races, four drivers will be eliminated until four remain for the final race at Homestead, Fla.

“This is going to make Homestead nearly as big as the Daytona 500, and we’ve never had that before,” Fox analyst Larry McReynolds said. “We’ve been to Homestead before when the points leader only had to finish 25th or better to win.”

NASCAR has long wanted to create “Game 7” moments, and Gossage — whose track hosts the eighth of the 10 playoff races — said the new system is on the way to doing that.

“To me, sports is about drama — bottom of the ninth, two-minute drive, whatever,” he said. “The way this works out is the same thing. It’s going to come down to the last race, four guys in it, may the best man win.”

The top 15 race winners from the regular season (the first 26 races) and the regular-season points leader will make the 16-driver playoff grid. If there are not 15 winners, the field will be filled in on points, which will be awarded in the same point-per-place formula. If there are 16 or more winners, the 16 with the most points go.

The first three races of the playoffs will be called the “Challenger Round.” The next three, the “Contender Round.” The next three, the “Eliminator Round.”

“NASCAR did a lot of research to come up with the four-driver format at the end,” Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip said. “Four is the most they’ve ever had with a chance of winning the championship going into the last race. It’s normally two with the third guy as a long shot.”

The drivers were generally positive about the change, but not everyone was a fan. Kyle Busch said the drivers are already trying to win every week.

“Last year, the champion would have been Dale Earnhardt Jr., who didn’t win a race,” he said. “How does that reward winning?”

Ironically, Earnhardt Jr. was a test case for NASCAR. His engine failure in the Chase opener last year doomed his title chances, although his final nine races were very good.

This year, a driver in a situation such as Earnhardt “could come back a week or two later and win and make it to the next round. I like that,” McReynolds said.