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NASCAR puts premium on winning in revamped Chase format

By Jim Utter The Charlotte Observer (MCT) • Updated Jan 30, 2014 at 11:17 PM

A final four and winner-take-all.

Those are familiar concepts as to how many successful sports leagues decide their champions.

NASCAR now has joined what it hopes is the more “relevant” party.

NASCAR chairman Brian France unveiled a vast restructuring of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, which includes expanding the field from 12 to 16 drivers, adding elimination rounds and a winner-take-all season finale.

The proposed changes were first reported Jan. 17 by the Observer.

“This new format rewards winning. It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule,” France said Thursday on the final day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour at the Charlotte Convention Center.

“It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line.”

While this was the fourth change in the championship format since France created the 10-race Chase during 2004, it is the most radical in scope.

“The announcement we’re making today is evidenced, I think, by 65 years later, NASCAR still wants to be relevant, still wants to be a leading-edge form of entertainment in sports, and this is how you do that,” said NASCAR President Mike Helton.

“You move, you move the gauge, you move the level of excitement by making big decisions.”

Under the new format, 16 teams will make the Chase, with the first positions going to full-time series contenders among the top 30 in points who won through the first 26 races of the season. Should 16 drivers not win, the remaining slots will be filled by drivers highest in points.

Under the Chase format, there have never been more than 15 race winners during the first 26 races of the season.

Once the Chase field is set and seeded, the four-lowest drivers in points among those participants will be eliminated from title contention after the third, sixth and ninth races. Wins during each three-race segment will ensure advancement to the next round.

The final four drivers will remain in contention for the finale at Homestead, Fla., and they will have their points reset so the highest finisher of the four in the race will become the series champion.

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

Several track operators and network TV partner ESPN lauded the changes.

“With NASCAR’s changes to the point system, I think we can safely say points racing is dead,” said Marcus Smith, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc.

“When it comes to race day, winning is the only thing that matters – period.”

Added Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of league sports programming: “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.”

Most drivers asked about the proposed changes during this week’s Media Tour expressed support for the change, although several withheld extensive comment until the official announcement.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon supported the change and posted the following message on his Twitter account:

“Winning has always been important in @NASCAR @SprintCup but wow just became THE way to win championship! Exciting!”

With winning races becoming the predominant determining factor in competing for and winning the title, pressure could increase for teams to break the rules in their quest for victory.

For decades, NASCAR has refused to take wins away from rule violators, preferring fans know the winner of the race while at the track.

It doesn’t appear NASCAR will alter that philosophy.

“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.”

Since the Observer first reported the changes, fan reaction has differed widely. Reaction on Twitter has been mostly negative, but reaction on call-in shows on SiriusXM’s NASCAR Channel mostly have been positive.

“Those who may not like this are very passionate about it. What I would say is instead of dismissing them, we very much value their opinion,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations.

“It’s OK. But I’d say, ‘Give this a chance, because it’s still the sport you love.’ We’re just going to take the sport you love and elevate it that much more.”

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