January 31, 2014 in Sports

New Sprint Cup format encourages winning races

Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

NASCAR CEO Brian France said drivers must now take more chances during races.
(Full-size photo)

NASCAR changes at a glance

WHAT’S NEW?: NASCAR on Thursday announced a new elimination-style format for the Sprint Cup championship.

WHO MAKES THE CHASE?: Instead of 12, 16 drivers will make the Chase for the championship, which still includes the final 10 races of the year. A win in one of the 26 regular-season races nearly guarantees a driver a spot in the Chase field. Other Chase qualifiers will be determined based on points.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?: Once the Chase begins, there will be three elimination rounds – the “contender,” “challenger” and “eliminator” rounds – each consisting of three races. Four drivers will be eliminated from title contention after each round. A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches a spot in the next round. Ultimately, four drivers will compete in the season finale at Homestead in a winner-take-all championship race. The highest finisher of the four wins the title.

WHY THE CHANGE?: NASCAR CEO Brian France said the purpose was threefold: to place an added emphasis on winning races, to make the format easier for fans to understand and to allow more drivers into the Chase.

WILL IT WORK?: Time will tell. This is NASCAR’s fourth significant change to the format in the last 10 years, but clearly this is the boldest move. It puts NASCAR in the company of other sports with an elimination-style format, including the NFL, MLB, NHL and NCAA basketball.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Say goodbye to the NASCAR era when a driver, fresh off a satisfying, top-10 finish, climbs from the car and raves about what a good points day it was.

Winning is all that matters under the latest and most radical change to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

NASCAR’s overhauled championship format announced Thursday is a 16-driver, winner-take-all elimination system designed to reward “the most worthy, battle-tested” driver at the end of the season.

“Riding around and being pleased because the (previous) format rewards consistency, those days are going to be pretty much over,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said.

The field, expanded from 12 to 16 drivers, will be whittled down to a final four through eliminations after every three races of the 10-race Chase. The remaining four drivers will go into the season finale with an equal chance to win the championship: The first of the four to cross the finish line will be crowned Sprint Cup champion.

“No math. No bonus points. It’s as simple as it gets,” France said.

It’s the fourth change to either the points or championship format since France created the Chase in 2004. For 28 years prior to the Chase, consistency reigned as the champion was the driver with the most points at the end of the season.

That ended a year after Matt Kenseth won the 2003 title with a single victory, and France began his pursuit of creating “Game 7 moments.” Along the way, he has pushed his agenda of wanting aggressive drivers chasing wins.

He’ll get that under the new format, which makes settling for points pretty much pointless.

Why? Because a win in the 26-race regular season nearly guarantees a berth in the Chase. Then, eliminations begin, and a driver can guarantee a trip to the next round with a victory.

Last August, Brad Keselowski chased Kyle Busch around Watkins Glen and declined to aggressively move his rival out of the way. Keselowski settled for second, racing for a good points day and declining to inflame his touchy relationship with Busch. But in doing so, he failed to win a regular-season race and missed the Chase, making him ineligible to defend his title.

Under the new format, a winless Keselowski would have no choice in that same situation but to bang fenders with Busch and go after the win.

That’s exactly what France wants to see on the track each week.

“This is pretty clear: You have to win, you have to compete at a higher level, you have to take more chances,” France said.

France said he expects contact among cars.

“Obviously there are some limits, but that’s always part of NASCAR, to have some version of contact late in the race,” he said. “Will this bring more of that? I’m sure it will.”

The changes were lauded by Julie Sobieski, vice president of league sports programming for ESPN, which will broadcast all 10 Chase races this year.

“We have long felt that there was a greater opportunity within the Chase and are in favor of an elimination format, which has been most effective in American sports,” she said.

Teams and drivers were briefed by NASCAR on the changes, and reaction was mostly positive.

“This took guts, this is a big deal,” said team owner Joe Gibbs, who saw his three Cup drivers combine for a series-best 12 wins last season.

Busch, who won four races and finished fourth in the standings, wasn’t as effusive.

“I don’t like to always be the Debbie Downer … but some of the things they are doing, I’m not in agreement with,” Busch said, declining to be specific because he spoke before NASCAR unveiled the format.

He noted that Keselowski would have had incentive to wreck Busch at Watkins Glen, and said there are other scenarios NASCAR must consider.

He referred to last season, when, Kenseth opened the Chase with a win at Chicago, where Busch followed his teammate across the finish line for a 1-2 finish for Gibbs.

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