From qualifying to championship, it’s a year of big change for NASCAR

NASCAR chairman Brian France was worried his sport was getting stale.

France wondered if, after 10 years, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format had lost its allure. He envied the drama of a winner-take-all game seven in the other major professional sports leagues and the pressure-packed, survive-and-advance appeal of the NCAA Tournament.

So France, hoping to boost television ratings on the brink of a new, 10-year, $8.2 billion package with Fox and NBC that takes effect next year, and wanting to end a decline in attendance at many tracks, implemented some of the most revolutionary changes in NASCAR’s 65-year history.

The biggest was revamping the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship into a 16-driver elimination system that will be whittled every three weeks to four eligible drivers racing for the title in the finale. The first one across the finish line at Homestead-Miami will take the grand prize.

Winning takes precedence over points racing because a driver can make the Chase by winning a race, and can advance in the Chase by winning at least once during the three elimination rounds.

NASCAR, in effect, will have its version of March Madness from September to November. Call it the Fall Free-for-All.

France has now tweaked the Chase four times since it was introduced in 2004. But NASCAR viewed this alteration as a way to keep up with the times, just as college football did by adopting a four-team playoff to determine the BCS champion starting this year.

“Things evolve,” France said. “You look at how the BCS has evolved. Evolving means you’re getting the best ideas at the moment, and if they’re not good enough to make a change, then you don’t. This new format rewards winning. It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule.

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

NASCAR’s changes for 2014 did not stop with the Chase. NASCAR also will introduce a new qualifying format for all three series at tracks bigger than 1.25 miles, excluding road courses and restrictor-plate tracks Daytona and Talladega; it announced a transparent procedure for administrating penalties; and it introduced a new body style for the Camping World Trucks Series.

How the new Chase will work

The playoff bracket will expand from 12 to 16 drivers determined at the conclusion of the Sept. 6 race at Richmond. Winning races will be the primary criteria in qualifying for the Chase grid, with the seasonlong-leading points leaders as the secondary criteria, should there be fewer than 16 winners in the first 26 races.

The first three races of the Chase — Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover — will be the Challenger Round. A win in any of these races guarantees advancement into the next round. The leading 12 drivers in wins and points will advance after these races, and the lowest four drivers will be eliminated from the championship. Points will then be reset for the next round.

The next three races — Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega — will be the Contender Round. Eight more drivers will advance and four drivers will be eliminated after Talladega. A win in any of those events advances a driver to the next round.

The next three races — Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix — will be the Eliminator Round. Four drivers will emerge from this round out of Phoenix to compete in the championship event. They will be race winners from the round and the remaining points earner.

The final event of the season at Homestead Miami will settle the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. The first of the four drivers to cross the finish line will be the Sprint Cup Champion.

“I think it will bring interest to those races where the elimination factor comes into play,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. “The first race of the Chase will be well watched and people will tune in. As we get to those elimination races, it’s going to be tuned up a notch.

“Every time we change something, it brings people’s eyes onto the sport. They want to see how it’s going to change and how things are going to work out. I think it makes people curious. They’ll definitely be checking it out the first of the season. Hopefully, they’ll like what they see.”

Had this format been in place last year, David Ragan, a surprise winner at the spring Talladega race who finished 28th in the standings, would have made the Chase.

“My W-2 would have looked a little bigger,” Ragan said. “I would have paid more taxes, but it would have been a big deal, and it is a big deal for these mid-level teams. The Hendrickss of the world and Joe Gibbs, they’re going to do the same things and they’re going to be good enough to make it, but if you look at the teams … that wouldn’t have made the Chase but are going to make it because of a race win, that’s a good thing.”

It’s still possible that a driver could win the Chase without winning a race. Based on the last year’s results, Earnhardt would have won the championship in this format. But the system is designed to create a scenario such as 2011 when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards to the checkered flag for the championship.

“Those four teams who make it to Homestead Miami will still have a full field of race cars to maneuver around, contend with,” France said. “That’s part of winning it. You’ve got to beat everybody and then some. So this is unique to us. It elevates this championship at every event in a way that’s never been possible for us.”

How the new qualifying will work

NASCAR took a page from Formula 1 by making qualifying a race within a race, with a three-round, knockout-qualifying format at tracks measuring 1.25 miles in length or larger (except Sprint Cup races on road courses and restrictor-plate tracks).

Drivers have to race their way into the starting grid. Instead of single-car qualifying, the entire field will be on the track for a 25-minute first round in all three national series.

The 24 cars/trucks that post the fastest single lap from the first qualifying round will advance to the second round. The remaining cars/trucks will be sorted in descending order based on times posted in the first round of qualifying.

In the second qualifying round (which will last 10 minutes), the 12 cars/trucks that post the fastest single lap time will advance to the third and final round.

In the final round, the fastest single lap time during a five-minute session will determine starting positions.

“I feel like we needed to do that a few years ago,” said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “When F1 started doing it, I was instantly a huge fan and said, ‘Man, I wish we had this.’ I love that they’re incorporating that (into NASCAR).”

The new qualifying procedures could force teams to decide whether to set up their cars in qualifying or race trim on the same day.

“It’s going to put the teams in a huge position,” said Greg Biffle, who has won 12 poles in his career, including Kansas Speedway in 2011. “One thing hasn’t changed … your fastest lap at most everywhere we go is going to be your first lap, cold tires, car taped completely off. That lap is two to three-tenths faster than any other lap you can possibly make.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, I can make four or five laps.’ Well, that’s ridiculous because you can only make one, and then the engine is overheating and the .. tire (has worn) … Look at how tight qualifying is. … I don’t think any of us know how it’s going to go.”

Changes in the future

As for the future? Don’t expect NASCAR to sit still. Some believe the 36-race schedule is too long, and some tracks that have two Sprint Cup races could be in danger of losing an event.

Others believe the 36-race schedule is here to stay, but some of the races should be shortened for the benefit of fans and to reduce costs for the teams.

“I still think there’s some more change out there that can be done,” said six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “You can argue the overall premise that maybe there’s a little too much NASCAR at times. Maybe we race too many times, our races are a little long. I think there can be some format changes and procedure changes during the course of an event to kind of compact that.

“We know it’s a major time commitment to come to the racetrack. You got a two-hour commute with traffic in and out, you have a five-hour event. That is just a daunting task for a lot of families.”

Greg Biffle anticipates even more tweaks to the new Chase format. It’s already been suggested that any driver who wins any of the nine Chase races leading into Homestead-Miami should receive an automatic qualifier into the season finale.

“In my opinion, that’s a great idea because we want the emphasis on winning,” Biffle said. “You could do that, and then you’ve got six or seven or how many different winners you had in those first (nine) races. There probably aren’t going to be seven different guys, it’s probably going to be four or five, so potentially maybe you’ve got a nine-car or eight-car field at Homestead.

“There are a bunch of different ways of doing it. I think the one thing we can’t lose focus of is you’ve got to have a little consistency still be a part of it.”

Changes in numbers

Every season when drivers move from one team to another, it takes a while for fans to adjust to their new numbers, but this year, some of NASCAR’s most identifiable drivers have changed digits. Here are the new numbers:

Austin Dillon 3
Kevin Harvick 4
Ryan Newman 31
Kurt Busch 41
Jeff Burton, Michael Waltrip 66
Martin Truex Jr.78

NASCAR not only sport to adapt

NASCAR is not alone in making changes to longstanding formats or adopting new policies as a way to enhance their sports. Here are some other recent changes in other sports.

• Major League Baseball added a wild-card team — a team in each league with the best record that did not win its division — to the playoffs in 1995. In 2012, it added a second wild-card team in each league, bringing the number of teams in the postseason to 10.

This season, after a limited replay system in 2013 that determined whether balls cleared the fence for home runs, MLB will implement a challenge replay system for everything but strikes and balls and force-outs at second base.

• The NFL took its Super Bowl outdoors in a cold-weather city in 2014, and the success of the game at MetLife Stadium outside New York City will no doubt lead to another non-domed game above the Mason-Dixon line.

And the league’s competition committee is considering adding a third-wild card team to the postseason, which would increase the number of playoff teams to 12. Commissioner Roger Goodell has also floated the idea of eliminating the extra-point kick in favor of running a play for two points.

But wait, there’s more. The NFL also made a change in the Pro Bowl by doing away with its conference vs. conference format and determining the two sides through a draft after the players were voted into the game.

• College football adopted a four-team playoff to determine the BCS championship. The new approach launches next season, after years of polls and computers created mythical champions followed by an unpopular system of pairing two teams in a title game. If this proves successful, look for the field to expand to eight, and as many as 16, teams in the future.

• The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament expanded from 65 to 68 teams in 2011 with the introduction of the First Four, which now opens the competition a few days before the rest of the field begins play. There’s annual speculation on whether the tournament should expand to as many as 96 teams.