It all started in 2003. That’s when RJR Reynolds announced it was no longer sponsoring NASCAR’s elite division, and soon followed was an announcement that Nextel would sponsor the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series starting in the 2004 season. There were rumors that the new company would want a playoff format, and that added with Matt Kenseth winning the championship by winning just one race screamed in the minds of some that the format needed an adjustment.
After much speculation, it was officially announced that NASCAR would have a playoff system. It would be known to fans as the Chase for the Nextel Cup and would be a 10-race playoff system that consisted of the top 10 drivers in the sport to battle it out for the championship.
Since then, the format has seen four major changes.
The Beginning (2004-2006)
The original format of the Chase for the Nextel Cup was simple: the 10 drivers with the most points from the first 26 races were the Chase drivers. Also, any driver within 400 points of the leader would be locked into the Chase. Drivers who made the Chase would then be placed at a points interval that consisted of the leader receiving 5,050 points and would have five-point increment drops from positions second through 10th.
Like any format, the format had its positives and negatives. The positive was that it was a simple format that rewarded consistency. However, NASCAR felt there needed to be more emphasis on winning and the format was changed headed into the 2007 season.
Format #2 (2007-2010)
The second format of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup saw more emphasis on winning races. This format consisted of 12 drivers instead of 10, giving more drivers a chance at winning the championship. The format was the same, drivers who had the most points would run for the championship. The 400-point provision was removed, even though in the three years prior that provision was never used to get a driver in the Chase. Prior to the 2008 season Nextel merged with Sprint and the series became known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The big change NASCAR implemented for this format was that all drivers that were in the Chase would have their points reset to 5,000 points. Drivers would receive 10 bonus points for each win during the regular season. It has been the format with the longest life (four years).
Format #3 (2011-2013)
NASCAR decided to change the format prior to the 2011 season, as well as the entire points system in general. NASCAR had scored points the same way every year from 1975-2010. In 2011 the points format changed to where NASCAR would score cars on a format that would have a points range of 1-43, one point for last place and 43 points for first place, plus three points for a win and one point for leading a lap and one additional point for leading the most laps. Drivers would receive three additional points for each win entering the Chase, after which points would reset to 5,000 points, just like in previous formats.
In addition, NASCAR announced a wildcard format to the Chase. Like the first format, NASCAR would take the top 10 drivers in points and leave two additional spots open for the highest driver in points not already locked into the points or the highest two drivers in points with wins not already locked into the Chase.
This format was an interesting one, but two major controversies were involved in this format, which led to its ultimate demise – and both happened at Richmond. One incident included Joey Logano and David Gilliland in which Gilliland let Logano by to make his way into the Chase. The other, more documented incident included Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. Bowyer’s car spun, causing a caution and helping his teammate Truex get into the Chase. It was a disaster for NASCAR and Michael Waltrip Racing. The following days were damage control for NASCAR and prompted NASCAR to add a 13th driver in the Chase.
Format #4 (2014-Present)
After the 2013 season, NASCAR announced a major overhaul for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The first major change was the amount of drivers NASCAR took for the Chase. The number increased to 16 drivers, the highest ever for a Chase. The way drivers qualified for the Chase also changed. Every driver who won a race is now eligible for the Chase, no matter where they finished in points as long as the driver finishes in the top 30 in points.
If there are not 16 winners in the regular season, those extra positions go to driver(s) who are highest in points. This new format is the first time that all drivers who won a race were locked into the Chase.
Also changed was the way the format was structured. Every format prior featured the Chase as a 10-week long playoff. Now the format features four rounds; the first three rounds feature three races and the final round is a one-race round. There were also eliminations. 16 drivers would be trimmed down to four in the final round, with four drivers getting eliminated each round.
The Chase starts with 16 drivers, and after the first round gets shortened to 12, then after the third round gets trimmed to eight and for the final race cut to four. The points would reset for each round, although three bonus points were rewarded for each win, however they would only be used in the first round. If an eligible driver wins a race in a given round, they automatically advance to the next round. The highest finishing eligible driver in the final race is the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.