Published Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 | 10:52 a.m.
Updated Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 | 12:19 p.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR overhauled its championship format Thursday, creating an elimination, winner-take-all system designed to reward "the most 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 to the season finale with an equal chance to win the championship: The first of the four drivers 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.
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 by winning a race.
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 a win.
That's exactly what France wants to see on the track each week. More important, it's what France said research shows fans overwhelmingly support.
"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 decrease 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. We look forward to bringing the Chase to NASCAR fans this fall."