The New NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Needs Simplified

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by Ryan Isley

Remember when the BCS was the most convoluted and confusing system in sports to determine a champion?  It just so happens that the year the BCS no longer is in existence, NASCAR has decided to take the challenge of matching it.

When NASCAR decided before the 2004 season that they wanted a new way to crown the series champion in their highest division, they created the Chase for the Sprint Cup (originally the Chase for the Nextel Cup). It took some time, but most fans finally adapted to the idea of the Chase, as it was a drastic change from the old system of determining the champion in NASCAR’s premier series. The problem has become that NASCAR is never completely satisfied with the system and continues to make changes, both big and small. It is one thing to make a minor change, but when you start making major changes that affect the way a championship is decided, people start to lose interest – especially if the changes aren’t easy to understand.

When the Chase was introduced for the 2004 season, the drivers who were eligible were the top 10 and anyone within 400 points of the leader if outside the top 10. Then in 2007, it was decided that the Chase would move to the top 12 drivers after 26 races.  In 2011, the number was kept at 12, but they were determined in a different way. The top 10 drivers in points were automatically in, and would be joined by two wild card drivers – the two with the most wins on the season who were between 11th and 20th in points.

However, it wasn’t just the number of drivers in the Chase that has changed multiple times – they also have changed the scoring for the Chase.  Originally, the Chase drivers would be set by their regular season points, with the points leader starting at 5,050 points and then there would be a five-point drop-off to each driver, giving the regular season champion an advantage. Then in 2007, NASCAR decided to set each driver to 5,000 and give drivers a 10-point bonus for each win accumulated through the first 26 races.

In 2011, it was changed again. This time, drivers in the Chase all had their points reset to 2,000 with each driver in the top 10 getting a three point bonus for each win. The two wild card winners stayed at 2,000. The reason for the change in points was simple – NASCAR had overhauled the entire points system starting at the Daytona 500. This was one change that really did simplify things.

This season, NASCAR decided that there needed to be multiple changes and overhauled the entire Chase format.

The first change came with the number of drivers who would make the Chase, as it was raised from 12 drivers to 16. But it wasn’t just about changing how many, it was also about changing how they qualify for the Chase. In 2014, an emphasis was placed on winning, with the 15 drivers with the most wins qualifying for the Chase along with the points leader if the leader didn’t have a win. If there were less than 15 winners (which there were in 2014), the remaining spots would go to the winless drivers with the most points.

It’s a little complex, but not too bad, right? Well, that wasn’t the end of the changes.

Starting in 2014, drivers will now be eliminated in the Chase after each of three different segments, setting up a race for the championship in the season finale. The field will be cut from 16 to 12 after the first three races, 12 to 8 after the next three races and then from 8 to 4 after the ninth race. The four remaining drivers will battle it out at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship.

Again – simple enough, right? It would have been. But then NASCAR did what NASCAR does – they made it more difficult to understand and explain.

The drivers begin the Chase as they have in the past few years, with points all reset to 2,000 for the “Challenger” round and each win in the first 26 races gives a driver three bonus points. Any driver who wins a race in each segment – as Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon did – is automatically advanced into the “Contender” round. The bottom four in points (Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola this year) are eliminated and cannot win the championship.

The remaining 12 drivers have their points reset to 3,000 and move to the “Contender” round, where the same rules apply – a win and you’re in to the “Eliminator” round with the bottom four drivers once again eliminated. Then from there, the remaining eight drivers have their points reset to 4,000 and compete in the “Eliminator” round for those four spots in the “NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.” Those four drivers will have their points reset to 5,000 and whoever finishes the highest of the four is the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

One little wrinkle – the wins that are accumulated throughout the Chase rounds do not earn the drivers bonus points for the next round. Therefore, each driver is on equal footing to start the final three segments of the Chase.

To make it even more confusing, the drivers who get eliminated from each segment have their points readjusted back their normal spot. This means that any driver who doesn’t make the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship at Homestead-Miami can still finish as high as fifth in the standings, no matter the round in which they were eliminated.

Understand all of that? If you did, you are one of the few. After the AAA 400 this past Sunday which ended the “Challenger” round, questions flew all over Twitter as to how the rest of the Chase works. While reporters who cover the series for a living were trying to explain it, all it did was confuse more and more people.

NASCAR always wants new fans to get interested in the sport, but it makes it more difficult to do so when even the fans that have followed the sports for a long time are confused by the changes that are made year after year. It is time for NASCAR to find a system that works and stick with it.

Did the thought of drivers being eliminated make for more exciting viewing on Sunday? It did. And that is what NASCAR is ultimately trying to get is a system that keeps people interested in more races. It made the AAA 400 an important race, just like it will make the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway and the Quicken Loans Racing for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway more meaningful than they were in the past.

But at the same time, are they making it too complicated to follow? The answer to that seems to be a resounding yes from what I am seeing. And that is wherein the problem lies. How can NASCAR find a happy medium between where the Chase once was and what it has become? That is the question that will be sitting there for Mike Helton and his team once this season ends. There should no doubt be some tweaking done before the start of the 2015 season.

Once upon a time, the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup was supposed to simplify things. What a lovely fairy tale that was. Too bad it has turned into a nightmare. Maybe it is a good thing that the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 falls within the Chase, because all of these changes are enough to give someone a headache.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryan.isley@morethanafan.net. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.