CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It couldn't be any simpler. The highest finisher among four eligible drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will win the championship.
No bonus for leading laps. No bonus points for leading the most laps. The one driver who finishes ahead of the other three takes home the trophy.
How the four drivers get to that final race with a chance to win the title also changes radically under a new format announced last Thursday by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France during the final event of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
First and most obvious, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup expands from 12 to 16 drivers, the second time in the 10- year history of NASCAR's 10-race playoff that the field of eligible drivers has been increased.
Win one of the first 26 races, and chances are, you're in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a 10-race playoff that will determine the champion through a series of eliminations. The points leader after 26 races also gets a spot in the Chase, whether or not he or she has won a race.
France noted that the new format elevates exponentially the importance of winning races throughout the season.
"For more than three years, we've been contemplating ways to elevate the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship format in the following ways: first, we've talked about putting greater emphasis on winning races, something our fans overwhelmingly want.
"Second, make competing and running for a championship much simpler and much simpler to understand; third, expand opportunities for more drivers to compete for the championship while ultimately rewarding the most worthy, battle-tested champion."
If more than 16 different drivers win races during the regular season, then the tiebreaker is standing in the points. If fewer than 16 different drivers win races, the remaining Chase positions will be filled by winless drivers highest in the standings.
In the 10 years of the Chase format, the highest number of different winners in the first 26 races has been 15. Last year, 13 different drivers won regular-season races.
"This new format rewards winning. It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule," France said. "It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line.
"The new Chase will be thrilling, easy to understand, and help drive our sports competition to a whole new level."
After the first three events in the Chase, called the Challenger Round, the four drivers with the lowest points totals, after a reset to start the Chase, will be eliminated. However, any Chase driver who wins one of the first three races -- at Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover -- advances to the next round, regardless of position in the standings.
Then the points are reset, and the remaining drivers start the final seven races on equal footing.
The same rules apply to the next three races (the Contender Round), at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega. Four more drivers will be dropped from championship contention, based on their standing in the points, but any one of the 12 remaining Chase drivers after Dover can advance to the next round (the Eliminator round) by winning one of the three races.
In the Contender Round, the Chase field is cut to eight drivers and points are reset again, with remaining eligible drivers starting the final four races on equal terms.
The next three races, at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, will determine which four drivers advance to the season finale with a chance to win the title. The same rules apply to the Eliminator Round. Win one of the three races and advance. If none of the final eight posts a victory, the top four in the standings move on to the deciding race.
France said the move was designed to minimize the efficacy of points racing, and the system now in place was the product of three years of research and planning bolstered by input from fans and conversations with all key stakeholders.
Asked whether the changes were a risky move, France had a ready answer.
"The biggest risk would be not to do it," he said. "When something checks every box and it's so clear, and we've done our homework, hopefully, in how we've designed it. We've talked to all of our industry and most importantly, our fans.
"Because, if they don't like what we do, then nothing matters. And, overwhelmingly, the more they understand it, the better it gets. So the risk for us -- it's always for us not to figure out how to elevate racing and competition."
To be eligible for the Chase, a driver must be in the top 30 in points after 26 races and must have attempted to qualify for each race.
An exception could occur, NASCAR President Mike Helton said, if a driver misses races for medical reasons -- such as the concussion that sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr. for two events in 2012 -- and remains eligible for the Chase under all other criteria.
Drivers who are eliminated after each round of the Chase will compete for fifth through 16th positions in the final standings. The eliminated driver who scores the most points in the final 10 races will finish fifth, and so forth.
ESPN, which will broadcast nine of the 10 of the Chase races next year (with the Charlotte night race carried on parent network ABC), reacted enthusiastically to the announcement.
"We're extremely pleased that NASCAR has chosen to implement this format," ESPN Vice President of League Sports Programming Julie Sobieski said in a statement.
"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. We look forward to bringing the Chase to NASCAR fans this fall."
Emphasis on winning is hallmark of new Chase format
"It's all about winning in the postseason," six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson posted to his Twitter account after the announcement. "We've been decent at that over the years.
That's an understatement. Anyone who thinks NASCAR is trying to "Jimmie-proof" its championship—in much the same way Augusta National supposedly tried to "Tiger-proof" the Masters by lengthening the golf course—hasn't been paying attention to the numbers.
Johnson is the only driver qualified for all 10 editions of the Chase so far, and he's won far more races during the Chase than anyone else. All told, 24 of the 100 Chase races run so far have ended with Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Victory Lane, a staggering statistic.
Under the new format, which is divided into three elimination rounds of three races each to winnow the Chase field from 16 drivers to four for the final race, a victory is a golden ticket to the next round. Do you really think Johnson doesn't like his chances to win a record-tying seventh title?
"I like the higher emphasis on winning and the cream will still rise ... ," tweeted 2012 champion Brad Keselowski.
NASCAR Executive Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell conceded that some fans might believe the new format is directed at Johnson, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
"I can't get in the fans' heads, but I can say there is speculation: 'You do this because of Jimmie,'" O'Donnell said in a questionand- answer session with reporters after the announcement. "No, Jimmie performs. We fully expect Jimmie to dominate again.
"Jimmie has been a champion of NASCAR. You heard Brian say you've got to beat the best of the best in the Chase. If you look back at Jimmie's history, I think we'd be surprised if he wasn't there in Miami."
Several reporters in the media workroom at the Charlotte Convention Center spent Thursday afternoon concocting doomsday scenarios that ranged from the unlikely to the outlandish.
What if a driver with no victories won the championship? Though highly unlikely, that could happen under the new system, just as it could happen under the old one.
What if rain washes out qualifying at Homestead, putting all four championship contenders on the front row? And what if they all wreck in the first corner of the race?
Let's get real here. All systems and all sports have these sorts of scenarios. A perfect example is the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
In late August, the Cardinals were 10 games back—of the wild card spot. In Las Vegas, the posted odds against the Cardinals winning the World Series were 5,000-to-1.
But the Cardinals made up the deficit, qualified for the playoffs as wild card on the last day of the regular season, survived two elimination rounds and won the World Series.
Yes, the new Chase format could produce an unexpected winner, but in order to win the title, the champion must first make the Chase (with winning a race the most certain avenue), then survive three eliminations and beat the three remaining drivers in a winner-take-all finale.
"Winning has always been important in @NASCAR @SprintCup," tweeted four-time champ Jeff Gordon, "but wow just became THE way to win championship! Exciting!"
It's particularly exciting for teams that aren't perennial frontrunners. The addition of four drivers to the Chase field and the high likelihood of qualifying for the Chase by winning one of the first 26 races, allows teams to concentrate on their strengths.
Tony Gibson, Danica Patrick's crew chief, said the No. 10 will intensify its focus on Daytona and Talladega, restrictor-plate superspeedways where Patrick feels she has the best chance of winning.
Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer allowed that there is no more clear favorite at any other track than his driver, Marcos Ambrose, is at Watkins Glen, where the road course ace triumphed in 2011 and 2012.
Immediately after the announcement, track owners rallied in support of a system that will give fans a higher incentive to attend races.
Dennis Bickmeier, president of Richmond International Raceway, host track for the final race of the regular season, summed it up.
"There's always been a feeling of electricity in the air during the 'One Last Race to Make The Chase' weekend at Richmond International Raceway, when everyone is talking about winning and being in a position to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup," Bickmeier said.
"The new changes to NASCAR's playoff system will now bring that feeling of excitement to all the races by putting the focus on winning every single week."
As France said in his remarks on Thursday, the changes to the Chase format, which incorporated input from fans and all key stakeholders in the industry, were not an attempt to emulate other sports as much as they were to meet the changing needs and desires of the stock car racing audience.
"This is unique to us," France said. "Everybody has their own version. College basketball has a tournament, somebody else has a playoff system, somebody else has a multiple-game series. This is unique to us. It captures some of the similarities, naturally, but it's very unique to us.
"Those four teams who make it to Homestead Miami will still have a full field of race cars to maneuver around, contend with. That's part of winning it. You've got to beat everybody and then some. ... As I say, it elevates this championship at every event in a way that's never been possible for us."
Or, as Keselowski put it, in a tweet to a fan who had reservations about the new system:
"Look around you. The world is changing, and so, too, are what fans want/expect out of sports. So must auto racing to survive."