Now, NASCAR has always been a branch of the sport that has put the focus on creating fan friendly drama and excitement. So when Matt Kenseth won the 2003 title by a big margin despite winning just one race all year, it wasn’t really what the sanctioning body wanted. They wanted a champion to have to win races – and for the title to go down to the final races. For 2004, they introduced the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
While NASCAR has always denied the Chase was inspired by the playoff format used in most American sports, it certainly achieved a similar goal. Originally, the top ten drivers in the standings after 26 races had their points totals reset, and then battled for the title over the final ten races. It was artificial, but it certainly helped build interest in the final races.
The Chase has undergone several tweaks since then, expanding to 12 drivers and with various points tweaks to put a greater emphasis on winning races. Interestingly, the Chase didn’t stop one driver from dominating: Jimmie Johnson has won the championship in six of the ten Chase years, including 2013.
His task will be harder this year: NASCAR has now revamped the entire system, putting the focus firmly on winning.
Alright, pay attention now: there are 16 spots available in this year’s Chase Grid, which will go to the top 16 drivers in the points with a win after the first 26 races. Effectively, if you win, you’re in. Simple. Now, this is where things get a bit mad.
After the first three races, the bottom four drivers in the points will be eliminated from the Chase. Four more will be cut after the sixth race, with four more after the ninth. Notably, any Chase driver who wins a race in any of those three-race sections will effectively receive a ‘bye’ to the next round, and the points will be reset after each round of eliminations.
If you’ve followed the maths, you’ll work out what that means: the final four drivers left in the Chase will go to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with their points reset. It will be a one-race, winner-takes-all shoot-out for the championship. Whichever of the four drivers secures the highest finish in the season finale wins the championship.
As a long-time fan of NASCAR, it’s a bit hard to digest. A championship title is supposed to reward a driver’s body of work throughout a whole season – in part because there are so many variables that ensure the results of a single race will never represent who the best driver over a season was.
That said, the four drivers who reach that final race will all have had to win races and score consistently well in the Chase. Any driver who gets into that final round shoot-out will deserve a shot at the title. And that final race is undoubtedly going to be essential viewing – that’s something the double-points F1 season finale might not be.
So what do you think? Should a championship reward season-long consistency, or is guaranteeing a final round showdown a good way to go? I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.
James Attwood is the editor of Autocar's sister publication, Motorsport News.