NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Brian Vickers, left, and Clint Bowyer laugh following a comment by driver and team owner Michael Waltrip during a news conference at the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto racing Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014.(AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR overhauled its championship format Thursday, creating a winner-take-all elimination system designed to reward “the most worthy, battle-tested” driver at the end of the season.
An expanded 16-driver field will be whittled down to a final four through three rounds of eliminations. 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,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. “We now have arrived at a format that makes every race matter more. It will promote compelling competition for wins all season long.”
It’s the fourth and most radical change to either the points or championship format since France created the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship system in 2004. For 28 years prior to the Chase, the champion was the driver with the most points at the end of the season.
It was changed a year after Matt Kenseth won the 2003 title with one victory, and France began his pursuit of creating “Game 7 moments” for NASCAR. Along the way, he has made it clear he wants a greater emphasis on winning and drivers aggressively pursuing a trip to Victory Lane.
Under this new format, the days of settling for a good points day are officially over.
Why? Because a win in the 26-race “regular season” virtually guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase. Then, once eliminations begin in the Chase, a driver can guarantee advancing into the next round with a victory.
Last August, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski chased Kyle Busch around Watkins Glen and declined to aggressively move his rival out of the way. Keselowski settled for second, and in failing to win a regular-season race, he missed the Chase and was 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, adding that NASCAR has not wavered in its desire for increased action on the track.
“If it’s this format, or any other format, and it’s late in the race and you’ve got a faster car, we expect some contact,” he said. “Obviously there are some limits, but that’s always part of NASCAR, to have some version of contact late in the race. Will this bring more of that? I’m sure it will.”
Under the new format, the 16-driver Chase field will get smaller after every three Chase races and a win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches a spot in the next round.
Points will be reset among the four remaining drivers prior to the season finale; no bonus points will be awarded in that race, and the first one across the finish line wins.
The move was 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 now consider. He referred to last season, when, Matt 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.
They again went 1-2 at New Hampshire the next week. But in the new format, that’s not necessarily good enough. Busch would instead be looking to win in such a scenario to ensure a trip to the next round.
“I’m chasing him down to try to get to him, and if I got to him, I could have moved his (butt) out of the way to get a win and knock me into the next round of playoffs. Matt didn’t need it,” Busch said. “Those situations are what NASCAR is looking at. They are not wanting, ‘Let’s just race to the checkered and not cause any drama and have a good points day.’”
Another twist: In the Kenseth-Busch scenario, it would have been in the best interest of Joe Gibbs Racing for Busch to win and, because the points reset after each round, meaning multiple victories by a driver in the Chase has no benefit — the team would have incentive to orchestrate a Busch victory over Kenseth.
“That would be a NASCAR gray area that they’d have to make a judgment call on,” Busch said.
NASCAR last year issued severe sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing for trying to manipulate the finish of the last race of the regular season. The scandal led France to angrily warn teams they must all give 100 percent at all times, and laying down to help a teammate or technical partner would not be tolerated.
NASCAR President Mike Helton said nothing will change in race control and how officials enforce the rules.
“We’ll officiate the sport the same way,” Helton said. “We get the fact that this puts pressure on us officiating, and we feel like we’re capable of stepping up to it.”
France said extensive research done by NASCAR showed the new format appealed to fans because it eliminates points racing.
“The avid fans like it because they don’t particularly care for points racing, even though they understand it,” France said. “The casual fans don’t understand points racing … often, with all the mathematicals, you’ve got to have a computer next to you to figure out who is in and who is out at a given moment. (This) clears all that off and then emphasizes winning, which everybody understands.”