The mindset of the 16 drivers and teams who have qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is about to undergo a change.
For 26 races, from the beaches of Daytona to the wine country of Northern California and as far north as New Hampshire, the operant phrase was "win and you’re in."
Basically, all any driver had to do was win a single race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season to qualify for a Chase slot. Points were mostly an afterthought.
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In fact, five of the 16 drivers who ultimately made the Chase ended NASCAR’s regular season ranked 17th or worse in points at the end of NASCAR’s regular season.
Winning still matters, but now what’s most important is "survive and advance." That’s because for the first time, the Chase features elimination rounds. And so championship contenders will want to score as many points as possible, which means they actually could be more conservative in the Chase than they were in the regular season.
That said, a win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next Chase round.
The new Chase format already is causing some head-scratching in the garage.
"With the way this thing is structured, it’s sort of structured to balance the playing field a little more and really give everybody a little bit more guesswork on who these guys are going to be that get eliminated and who are the guys that are going to keep moving forward," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "It’s going to be tough. You’re going to have to put together some damn good races."
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion and No. 1 seed this year, thinks there isn’t a clear-cut favorite, despite the dominance of Team Penske, who Keselowski drives for, and Hendrick Motorsports, the squad that employs Earnhardt.
Collectively, Hendrick and Penske have sent six different drivers to Victory Lane this year and accounted for 17 of 26 regular-season race wins. But Keselowski says that still doesn’t make those two teams the overwhelming favorites.
"It’s really hard to say," said Keselowski. "It seems like everybody seems to find another level when it comes time for the Chase. There could be somebody out there sleeping."
The New Chase format certainly is poised to create excitement.
All 16 Chase drivers will compete in the next three races that comprise the Challenger Round — Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover — with the four Chase drivers lowest in points after Dover eliminated from championship contention, unless they won one of those three races. Unlike the regular season, drivers don’t get bonus points for winning races in the Chase.
After Dover, the top 12 drivers will have their point totals reset to 3,000 and will advance to the Contender Round — Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega — ith the bottom four in points removed after Talladega.
The eight remaining championship contenders then move on to the Eliminator Round — Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. The eight will start this round with 4,000 points each. The title hopefuls will be reduced to four following the Phoenix race.
After Phoenix, the points for the final four drivers will be reset to 5,000 each. And whichever one of the four drivers in the Championship Round has the best finish in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be crowned the champion. There will be no bonus points for leading the most laps.