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New rules
What’s new: NASCAR on Thursday announced a new elimination-style format for the Sprint Cup championship.
Who makes the Chase: Instead of 12 drivers, 16 will make the Chase for the championship, which still includes the final 10 races of the year. A win in one of the 26 regular-season races virtually guarantees a driver a spot in the Chase field. Other Chase qualifiers will be determined based on point standings.
What happens next: Once the Chase begins, there will be three elimination rounds – the “contender,” “challenger” and “eliminator” rounds – each consisting of three races. Four drivers will be eliminated from title contention after each round. A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches a spot in the next round. Ultimately, four drivers will compete in the season finale at Homestead in a winner-take-all championship race. The highest finisher of the four wins the title.

NASCAR’s new Chase puts emphasis on race wins

– Looking to “make every race matter even more,” NASCAR CEO Brian France rolled out seismic changes to the Chase championship format for the 2014 Sprint Cup season Thursday afternoon.

Placing an emphasis on winning and not points racing, the new NASCAR rules will expand the field of drivers in the Chase from 12 to 16, with any driver who scores a victory in the first 26 races of the season virtually assured of a spot in the Chase.

A series of three knockout brackets will now be included as part of the 10-race Chase format, culminating with a four-driver “winner take all” scramble in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. The driver with the best finish there wins the Cup title.

“Everything is focused on winning and that’s exactly what our fans want,” France said. “This checks all the boxes, winning, simplicity.”

The knockout process will begin after the third Chase race in Dover, when four drivers will be eliminated from the Chase field. After the sixth Chase race in Talladega, the field will drop to eight drivers. Following the ninth Chase race in Phoenix, a Final Four field will then advance to contend for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

The changes reflect a number of variables, including an effort to connect with the 18-to-35 demographics, to increase a stagnant TV viewership, get more bodies in the stands, coupled with a desire by NASCAR officials to establish a playoff system that’s more compatible with ball-and-sticks sports.

Predictably, the changes evoked mixed reactions.

The skeptic: “As a fan it’s hard to make the shift in my thinking in crowning a championship over the whole year, or even 10 races, to crowning him in one race,” said veteran Cup driver Carl Edwards. “There’s a huge wow factor for me. I never considered that possible.

“To me it feels like stepping off a cliff into an unknown when you take what the sport has been for so long and you change it.”

The supporter: “I was so sick and tired of people saying ‘think of the big picture, think of the points, think Top 10 finish,” said owner Felix Sabates. “How about winning a frickin race? This new format makes that change.”

The pragmatist: “I really wasn’t excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening and you kinda had to get used to it,” said driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I’m all for it. Let’s change it all!”

That’s essentially what France and company are doing in making the fourth and most impactful change to the Chase format since it was established in 2004.

The process evolved over conversations and meetings with “key stakeholders“, including fans and business partners, over the last three years, France said.

“They understand winner-take-all formats and they love those moments,” France said. “And this will elevate the opportunity to have those moments.”

Onward to Daytona it is for the first race of the season – the Great American race on Feb. 23. We’ll see how it all plays out 36 races later in November.

“It might not be the guy who is leading the points who wins the championship from a traditional standpoint but the four people who will have a shot at it will be top dogs,” said six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “It’s not going to be a layup by any means.”