We’re now in the second year of the new Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff format, and if 2014 is any indication, we’re in for a compelling 10 weeks of racing. The idea is pretty simple: 16 drivers quality for the playoffs, then grind it out across three elimination rounds. Four advance to the title race Nov. 22 at Miami-Homestead Speedway, and the one who finishes highest among them is crowned champion.
It’s a fun format. Emphasis is put on racing for the win to automatically advance — especially in the elimination races. But points racing to finish high enough in the standings each round to avoid elimination is important, too. It’s not always fair, though. Last year, for instance, Jeff Gordon was racing for a victory during a green-white-checkered finish at Texas — the middle race of the third round — when Brad Keselowski cut down his tire. Because each round only has three races, a sudden 29th place finish is almost impossible to overcome without a victory.
That makes each race count immensely, which is fun for the fans, but can take a contender out of the championship hunt through no fault of his own. Still, all it takes is one win to advance to the next round. So, every driver has a chance, and 11 of 16 Chase contenders have tasted victory this season.
Trying to predict a champion this year seems a fool’s task. Three drivers each won four races in the 26 weeks leading up to the playoffs, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team among them. Then you’ve got Kyle Busch, who missed 11 weeks after breaking his right leg and left foot during an Xfinity Series race the night before the Daytona 500 in February. He returned, won four races and raced consistently near the top in the rest to finish among the Top 30 in points, NASCAR’s mandate if Busch were to qualify for the playoffs. But don’t forget Matt Kenseth, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, who won at Richmond on Sept. 12 to enter the the playoffs hot.
Any driver, though, should be considered capable of winning the Chase just by making it this far. Last year Ryan Newman advanced to the championship race without entering Victory Lane all season. Jeff Gordon advanced on points this year as well. He may not have enough car to win, but during this his final season he’ll be a sentimental favorite for many.
All 10 races of the Chase can be viewed on NBC’s family of stations, with the Sept. 20 opener at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN and the final three races all featured on NBC.
The Chase, by numbers
Drivers qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs automatically by winning a race during the regular season. If fewer than 16 drivers win races, points determine the rest of the field.*
* It’s a bit more complicated than this, but practically speaking that’s all you need to know.
The first three rounds (named Challenger 16, Contender 12, Eliminator 8) are each comprised of three races. The final round is just one race.
Win a race to advance to the next round automatically. Maintain a high points total to advance: four drivers are eliminated from contention after each round, based on having the four lowest points totals. The points reset each round for advancing drivers. There are no bonus points for wins.
Whichever of the four drivers still in the Chase at Homestead-Miami finishes highest wins the championship.
CHALLENGER ROUND AFTER 0 RACES
* Drivers were awarded three bonus points for each race won entering the playoffs.
Chase playoff schedule
Challenger Round (16 drivers)
Sept. 20: MyAFibRisk.com 400, Chicagoland Speedway, 3 p.m., NBCSN
Sept. 27: Sylvania 300, New Hampshire Speedway, 2 p.m., NBCSN
Oct. 4: AAA 400, Dover International Speedway, 2:30 p.m. NBCSN
Contender Round (12 drivers)
Oct. 10: Bank of America 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway, 7 p.m. NBC
Oct. 18: Hollywood Casino 400, Kansas Motor Speedway, 2:15 p.m. NBC
Oct. 25: Alabama 500, Talladega Superspeedway, 2:30 p.m. NBCSN
Eliminator Round (8 drivers)
Nov. 1: Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, Martinsville Speedway, 1:15 p.m., NBCSN
Nov. 8: AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, 2 p.m., NBC
Nov. 15: Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, Phoenix International Raceway, 2:30 p.m. NBC
Championship Race (4 drivers)
Nov. 22: Ford EcoBoost 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, 3 p.m. NBC