When NASCAR introduced its new method of crowning the Sprint Cup champion it was clear that the easiest path to wearing the crown is to win races.
That was so true for the 26-race regular season that concluded last weekend at Richmond, but a win during that portion of the schedule just provided you with the opportunity to move into the final 10 races of the season with a chance to compete for the title.
Sixteen drivers will now take the green flag this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway with the opportunity to become the series champion, and winning a race now may take on an even more important role. Points will still count during the Chase, but the easiest way for a driver to continue through the Chase schedule for the opportunity to win the title is still by capturing a checkered flag.
The 16 drivers that will take the green flag this weekend have had their points reset to 2,000 with each winning driver receiving an additional three points for each trip to victory lane he posted during the 26 races leading up to the Chase. Points will also become even more important than before, because after the first three races, only 12 drivers will move into the next round of three races with the opportunity to run for the title in the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami. Drivers will still earn bonus points for leading a lap or leading the most laps in a race.
The Chase has been divided into three segments with three races each leading up to the Homestead Miami race. The Challenger Round begins this weekend at Chicagoland and will include the next two races on the schedule at New Hampshire and Dover.
All a driver has to do to move on to the next round of races is to win one of the three races as a win guarantees moving on regardless of where he finishes in the other two races. The remaining field of 12 drivers that will move on will earn their spot by their position in the points.
The 12 drivers moving on in the Chase will have their points reset to 3,000 to begin the Contender Round of races at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega. Winning one of these three races will assure a driver a spot in the field of eight drivers that will move into the final three-race segment known as the Eliminator Round, with every driver’s points being reset to 4,000.
Stops on the schedule at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix make up the Eliminator Round that will eventually reduce the field of eligible drivers with the opportunity to race for the title in the last race of the season to four. Just like every other round in the Chase, any driver winning one of the three racers will automatically have the opportunity to race for the title. Any of the four spots not claimed by a winning driver will go to the drivers highest in the points.
The 36th and final race of the season becomes the Sprint Cup Championship with the four eligible drivers’ points reset to 5,000. Bonus points will not be awarded for leading a lap or leading the most laps, so the champion will be the driver who has the highest finishing position.
Winning a race is still the best way to advance through the rounds, but when these rules were applied to last year’s Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been the winner even though he didn’t win a race during the Chase. Earnhardt would have been joined in the final race with the eventual 2013 champion Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon.
All of this can lead to some very interesting strategy by crew chiefs as the Chase races go off the board. Sure every team wants to post at least one win during the 10-race stretch, but making sure you stay in contention with your points position will be every bit as important and ultimately be the reason that a driver becomes the 2014 Sprint Cup champion.
Event: MyAFibStory.com 400
Track: Chicagoland Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 18 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 14, 2 p.m.
Defending Champion: Matt Kenseth