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The Chase for the Sprint Cup, originally known as "The Chase for the Championship" during its creation, and then "The Chase for the Nextel Cup" (from 2004 to 2007) is the championship system used in NASCAR's top division, the Sprint Cup Series, akin to the postseason in American professional sports leagues. The Chase was announced on January 21, 2004, and first used during the 2004 Nextel Cup season. The format used from 2004 to 2006 was modified slightly starting with the 2007 season. Beginning with the 2008 Sprint Cup Series, the Chase became known by its new name as a result of the merger of Nextel Communications with Sprint Corporation. A major change to the qualifying criteria was instituted in 2011, along with a major change to the points system. Even more radical changes to the qualifying criteria, and to the format of the Chase itself, were announced for the upcoming 2014 Sprint Cup Series. As of 2014, the 10-race Chase involves 16 drivers chosen primarily on wins during the "regular season"; if fewer than 16 drivers win races during the regular season, the remaining field is filled on the basis of regular season points. These drivers compete against each other while racing in the standard field of 43 cars. The driver with the most points after the final 10 races is declared the champion.
|Year||Champion||Team||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|2004||Kurt Busch||Roush Racing||1||6||9|
|2005||Tony Stewart||Joe Gibbs Racing||5||7||10|
|2006||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||5||7||8|
|2011||Tony Stewart||Stewart-Haas Racing||5||6||8|
|2012||Brad Keselowski||Penske Racing||5||3||8|
|2013||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||6||6||7|
|2014||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||5||7||9|
The current version of the Chase was announced by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France on January 30, 2014. The current Chase format is the fourth since the Chase was introduced for the 2004 season, with significant changes made in both 2007 and 2011. The 2014 change is the 14th time since 1949 that the point system had been changed, although these latest changes only affected the Chase itself.
Starting in the 2004 season, after the first 26 races of the season, all drivers in the Top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader will earn a berth in the Chase. All drivers in the Chase will have their point total adjusted. The first-place driver in the standings begins the chase with 5,050 points; the second-place driver starts with 5,045, etc. Incremental five-point drops continue through the list of title contenders.
In 2007, NASCAR expanded the field of contenders to the top 12 drivers in the points standings after the first 26 races. Each drivers' point total reset to 5,000 points, with a ten point bonus for each race won. The provision letting all drivers within 400 points of the leader was dropped.
Brian France explained why NASCAR made the changes to the chase:
"The adjustments taken [Monday] put a greater emphasis on winning races. Winning is what this sport is all about. Nobody likes to see drivers content to finish in the top 10. We want our sport – especially during the Chase – to be more about winning."
The Chase format was again modified for the 2011 season, as was the point system for winnings. After 26 "regular season" races, the top 10 drivers, as determined by points accumulated during the season, automatically advance to contend for the Cup championship. These drivers are joined by two "wild card" qualifiers, specifically the two drivers ranked from 11th through 20th in drivers' points who have the most regular-season race wins. The 12 drivers' championship points are reset to a base of 2,000 per driver. Each of the 10 automatic qualifiers receives a bonus of 3 points for each win during the regular season, while the two wild card qualifiers receive no bonus. Normal scoring applies during the Chase, with race winners earning 43 base points plus 3 bonus points, all drivers who lead a lap earning 1 bonus point, and the driver who leads the most laps earning 1 bonus point in addition to any other points earned.
As in all previous Chases, the driver with the highest point total at the conclusion of the 10-race Chase was the Sprint Cup champion.
The Chase field consisted of 12 drivers from 2007 through 2012. An exception to this rule was in 2013, where the Chase field was expanded to 13 drivers for that season only as the result of the Singapore Sling match fixing scandal. With seven laps remaining in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Clint Bowyer went into a spin, forcing a caution. After the race, rumors abounded that Bowyer had deliberately forced a caution in an attempt to manipulate the finish of the race so as to help his Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) teammate Martin Truex, Jr. clinch the second of the two Wild Card spots (Kasey Kahne had already clinched the first spot) over Ryan Newman, who had been leading at the moment of caution. That Bowyer's spin had been deliberate had been further suggested by several things: the first was radio communications on Brian Vickers' team with his spotter, MWR general manager Ty Norris, telling him to pit under green on the restart, and that the audio on Bowyer's radio showed crew chief Brian Pattie pointing out Newman taking the lead and then asking a suspicious string of questions mere seconds before Bowyer spun. Furthermore, when interviewed by Dr. Jerry Punch post-race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was directly behind Bowyer, said that Bowyer "just spun out. It was the craziest thing I saw," and that the behavior of Bowyer's car was inconsistent with Bowyer's claim that a right front tire blew out (the popping noise associated with a flat tire was not heard until after the spin). Vickers' pitting on the restart forced Newman to the back of the pitting cycle, costing him several positions. He ended up finishing third to Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. By finishing third, Newman was tied with Truex in both wins (one) and final points for the second Wildcard spot. Truex won the tiebreaker on top-five finishes.
The following Monday, September 9, NASCAR issued some of the most severe penalties imposed on a team in Sprint Cup history. MWR was placed on probation for the rest of the season, and Norris was suspended indefinitely. All three MWR teams were docked 50 owner/driver points for "actions detrimental to stock car racing." As this penalty was applied to pre-Chase point totals, it knocked Truex out of the Wildcard spot and put Newman in his place. NASCAR was unable to find solid evidence that Bowyer's spin was deliberate, but did determine that Norris's order to have Vickers pit was a deliberate attempt to manipulate the Chase standings in Truex's favor. Had the ruse not happened, Newman was on point to win the race, automatically becoming the second wild card and bumping Truex.
The ruse also resulted in a second controversy when radio transmissions were discovered suggesting that Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing had struck a deal for David Gilliland to give up a spot on the track for Joey Logano, allowing Logano to race his way into the final lock-in position by one point over Jeff Gordon. A second NASCAR inquiry resulted in both teams being placed on probation for the remainder of the year. This ruse was found to have been directly caused by the Safety Car. Had the Safety Car situation for Bowyer's intentional spin not occurred, Gordon would have finished ahead of Logano by one point and Logano would have been bumped by Newman winning the race since Newman would have taken the first Wild Card. Although Logano was allowed to keep his Chase berth, the field was expanded to 13 with the addition of Gordon on September 13. NASCAR chairman Brian France has always had the power to expand the Chase field in exceptional circumstances, and decided to invoke it in this case. In France's view, Gordon had been put at an "unfair disadvantage" due to Penske and Front Row's collusion, as well as MWR's improper instructions to have Vickers pit. Had this not happened, France said, Gordon would have been in the Chase by taking the last lock-in position, while Logano would have received one Wild Card position due to him being ahead of Truex and Newman in points, and Kasey Kahne would have taken the other Wild Card regardless of the race outcome as he had two wins entering Richmond.
On January 30, 2014, a new Chase system resembling the playoff systems used in other major league sports was announced at Media Day. On July 15, NASCAR announced various design changes to identify Chase drivers in the field: on these drivers, their cars' roof numbers, front splitters and fascia, and the windshield header are colored yellow, and the Chase logo on the front quarter panel.
Under the new system, the Chase field is expanded to 16 drivers. But unlike previous versions of the Chase, drivers are eliminated from title contention as the Chase progresses. The bottom four of the top-16 drivers are eliminated from title contention after the third race (Dover) in what is called the "Challenger Round", reducing the size of the field by 25%. Points are then reset to 3,000 points, then the new bottom four are eliminated after the sixth Chase race (Talladega) in the "Contender Round", reducing the size of the field another 33%. Those who continue have their points all reset to 4,000. Then the "Eliminator Round" involves axing 50% of the Chase grid, cutting the drivers 5th-8th in the points after the penultimate race at Phoenix, and the top four drivers have their point totals reset to 5,000 so that they are tied for the final race at Homestead-Miami for the title run. Of these four drivers, the driver with the best finish at Homestead is then the crowned series champion (these drivers do not earn bonus points for leading a lap or leading the most laps).
The publicly stated purpose for the NASCAR Chase system was to make the NASCAR mid-season more competitive, and increase fan interest and television ratings. The timing coincides with the commencement of the college and National Football League seasons. Prior to the Chase format, the Cup champion was often determined mathematically long before the end of the NASCAR season; a situation that still exists in NASCAR's Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series, neither of which has a Chase system.
By resetting and compressing the scoring of the top 10 drivers, the chances of each of those ten drivers winning the championship was increased, while not precluding anyone with a legitimate chance of winning (based on the historical analysis that no driver outside the top 10, with 10 races remaining in the season, has ever gone on to win the Championship).
Short track racing, the grassroots of NASCAR, began experimenting with ideas to help the entry-level racer. In 2001, the United Speed Alliance Racing organization, sanctioning body of the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series, a short-track stock car touring series, devised a five-race system where the top teams in their Hooters ProCup North and Hooters ProCup South divisions would participate in a five-race playoff, the Four Champions, named for the four Hooters Racing staff members (including 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Alan Kulwicki) and pilot killed in an April 1, 1993 plane crash in Blountville, Tennessee. The system organized the teams with starting points based on the team's performance in their division (division champions earn a bonus), and the teams would participate in a five-race playoff. The five races, added to the team's seeding points, would determine the winner. The 2001 version was four races, as one was canceled because of the September 11 terrorist attacks; however, NASCAR watched as the ProCup's Four Champions became a success and drivers from the series began looking at NASCAR rides. The idea was to give NASCAR, which was becoming in many areas the fourth-largest sport (after Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and surpassing in some regions the NHL) attention during baseball's road to the World Series and the outset of the pro and college football, NHL and NBA seasons.
The Chase has been referred to as "the Matt Kenseth Rule" as a result of Kenseth's championship in the final year of the series with Winston sponsorship in 2003, the year prior to NASCAR adopting the Chase system and Nextel becoming the namesake sponsor. In 2003, Kenseth won the then-Winston Cup series championship despite winning only one race (that being the third race of the year in Las Vegas Motor Speedway) but ending the season with 25 top-ten finishes. In contrast, Ryan Newman won eight races that year (22% of the 36 races run in 2003), but finished sixth in points due to DNFs from crashes. In truth, "the Matt Kenseth Rule" more properly refers to the NASCAR numerical scoring system also implemented for the 2004 season, which increased the points awarded to race winners, thus emphasizing winning in addition to consistency. NASCAR acknowledged that the 2003 championship outcome was not the driving factor in establishment of the Chase, as NASCAR had been researching methods to adjust the points system to put more emphasis on winning races since 2000. However, the coincidence of the commencement of the new format in 2004 and Kenseth's 2003 championship linked the issues, and were even referred to by NASCAR officials in the interviews and press releases following the announcement of the new format.
The following are the ten race tracks at which the final ten Chase for the Sprint Cup races are run. Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas) was added in 2005 as a result of outcome of the Ferko lawsuit. Prior to this suit, the final three races of the NASCAR season, and thus, the final three race tracks for The Chase, were held at Phoenix International Raceway (Avondale, Arizona), Darlington Raceway (Darlington, South Carolina, eliminated by NASCAR as a result of the lawsuit), and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Homestead, Florida). Also, by way of a 3-way track change, Talladega Superspeedway moved to a later date, Atlanta Motor Speedway moved to the Labor Day weekend date, and Auto Club Speedway moved to a later date inside the Chase (starting 2009).
In 2011, as part of a substantial schedule realignment, a number of further changes occurred in the Chase:
|Chicagoland Speedway||Joliet, IL||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||1||1||1||1||1|
|New Hampshire Motor Speedway||Loudon, NH||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||2||2||2||2||2|
|Dover International Speedway||Dover, DE||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||3||3||3||3||3|
|Kansas Speedway||Kansas City, KS||4||4||3||3||3||3||3||4||6||4||4||5|
|Charlotte Motor Speedway||Concord, NC||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||4|
|Talladega Superspeedway||Talladega, AL||3||3||4||4||4||7||7||6||4||6||6||6|
|Martinsville Speedway||Ridgeway, VA||6||6||6||6||6||6||6||7||7||7||7||7|
|Texas Motor Speedway||Fort Worth, TX||-||8||8||8||8||8||8||8||8||8||8||8|
|Phoenix International Raceway||Avondale, AZ||8||9||9||9||9||9||9||9||9||9||9||9|
|Homestead-Miami Speedway||Homestead, FL||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10|
|Atlanta Motor Speedway||Hampton, GA||7||7||7||7||7||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Auto Club Speedway||Fontana, CA||-||-||-||-||-||4||4||-||-||-||-||-|
|Darlington Raceway||Darlington, SC||9||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-|
The Chase for the Nextel Cup was created in 2004 by NASCAR when Nextel started to sponsor the series. In the original version of the Chase, following the 26th race of the season, all drivers in the top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader got a spot in the 10-race season conclusion. Like the current system, drivers in the Chase had their point totals adjusted. However, it was based on the number of points at the conclusion of the 26th race. The first-place driver in the standings led with 5,050 points; the second-place driver started with 5,045. Incremental five-point drops continued through 10th place with 5,005 points. In addition, drivers received 180 points for winning a race, 5 bonus points for leading the most laps, and 5 bonus for leading a single lap.
From 2011 to 2013, after the introduction of a new points system that remains in use, the Chase involved the top 10 drivers points positions followed by 2 additional drivers with the most wins in points positions 11 through 20 after 26 races. These 12 drivers had their points set to 2000; the top 10 drivers were given 3 bonus points for each win they had during the first 26 races.
Starting in 2014, the Chase field—now officially known as the Chase Grid—starts with 16 drivers. These drivers are selected on the basis of races won during the first 26 races, with remaining places filled in order of season points. As in the 2011–13 period, all drivers on the Chase Grid have their points reset to 2,000, with a 3-point bonus for each win during the first 26 races. The new Chase now consists of four rounds, the first three of which consist of three races each and the last round being the newly renamed NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. Any driver on the Chase Grid who wins a race in the first three rounds automatically advances to the next round. After each of the first three rounds, the four Chase Grid drivers with the fewest points are eliminated from the Grid, and their points are readjusted to the regular-season points scheme. The new rounds are as follows:
(Uses the point system of that year prior to the Chase)
Actual Winner in Bold.
Old Points System – 2006 Pre Chase Seedings
Old Points System – 2006 Pre Chase Seedings, using 2007 format
The most evident shift in the Chase seeding which reflects the emphasis on winning of the 2007 format, is Kasey Kahne who, under the 2006 system entered the Chase in 10th place, with 5000 points. Had the 2007 format been in place in 2006, Kahne's 5 wins would have placed him first in the Chase seeding.
|Rank||Driver||Times||Best Finish||First Year||Manufacturer||No.||Team||Wins||Top 5||Top 10||Races|
|1||Johnson, JimmieJimmie Johnson||10||1st||2004||Chevrolet||48||Hendrick Motorsports||24||56||74||100|
|2||Gordon, JeffJeff Gordon||9||2nd||2004||Chevrolet||24||Hendrick Motorsports||5||37||60||100|
|3||Kenseth, MattMatt Kenseth||9||2nd||2004||Toyota||20||Joe Gibbs Racing||6||35||47||100|
|4||Stewart, TonyTony Stewart||8||1st||2004||Chevrolet||14||Stewart Haas Racing||11||26||46||90|
|5||Busch, KurtKurt Busch||7||1st||2004||Chevrolet||78||Furniture Row Racing||3||20||42||98|
|6||Edwards, CarlCarl Edwards||7||2nd||2005||Ford||99||Roush Fenway Racing||8||32||51||99|
|7||Hamlin, DennyDenny Hamlin||7||2nd||2006||Toyota||11||Joe Gibbs Racing||6||24||42||87|
|8||Harvick, KevinKevin Harvick||7||3rd||2006||Chevrolet||29||Richard Childress Racing||5||20||56||100|
|9||Biffle, GregGreg Biffle||6||2nd||2005||Ford||16||Roush Fenway Racing||7||28||43||100|
|10||Busch, KyleKyle Busch||6||4th||2006||Toyota||18||Joe Gibbs Racing||1||27||41||92|
|11||Earnhardt, Jr., DaleDale Earnhardt, Jr.||6||5th||2004||Chevrolet||88||Hendrick Motorsports||2||18||35||98|
|12||Bowyer, ClintClint Bowyer||5||2nd||2007||Toyota||15||Michael Waltrip Racing||5||17||44||80|
|13||Newman, RyanRyan Newman||5||6th||2004||Chevrolet||39||Stewart Haas Racing||2||16||38||100|
|14||Martin, MarkMark Martin||4||2nd||2004||Chevrolet||5||Hendrick Motorsports||2||20||33||88|
|15||Kahne, KaseyKasey Kahne||4||4th||2006||Chevrolet||5||Hendrick Motorsports||2||24||36||100|
|16||Burton, JeffJeff Burton||4||6th||2006||Chevrolet||31||Richard Childress Racing||2||15||34||100|
|17||Keselowski, BradBrad Keselowski||2||1st||2011||Dodge||2||Penske Racing||3||9||20||48|
|18||Mayfield, JeremyJeremy Mayfield||2||9th||2004||Dodge||19||Evernham Motorsports||0||1||5||27|
|19||Truex, Jr., MartinMartin Truex, Jr.||2||11th||2007||Toyota||56||Michael Waltrip Racing||0||8||28||85|
|20||Wallace, RustyRusty Wallace||1||8th||2005||Dodge||2||Penske Racing||0||1||6||20|
|21||Montoya, Juan PabloJuan Pablo Montoya||1||8th||2009||Chevrolet||42||Earnhardt Ganassi Racing||0||6||11||71|
|22||Logano, JoeyJoey Logano||1||8th||2013||Ford||22||Penske Racing||0||9||17||53|
|23||Sadler, ElliottElliott Sadler||1||9th||2004||Ford||38||Robert Yates Racing||0||1||12||74|
|24||Vickers, BrianBrian Vickers||1||12th||2009||Toyota||83||Team Red Bull||1||4||12||74|
As of the 2014 season, 110 Chase events have been raced. Of these, 19 of the Chase races were won by drivers "playing spoiler", a term that describes a driver who did not make the Chase for the Sprint Cup that year (drivers shown in pink have never been Chase participants), or, under the 2014 Chase format, had been eliminated from the Chase prior to that event.
|1||2004||Joe Nemechek||MBV Motorsports||Banquet 400||Kansas Speedway|
|2||2004||Greg Biffle||Roush Racing||Ford 400||Homestead-Miami Speedway|
|3||2005||Dale Jarrett||Robert Yates Racing||UAW-Ford 500||Talladega Superspeedway|
|4||2005||Jeff Gordon||Hendrick Motorsports||Subway 500||Martinsville Speedway|
|5||2005||Kyle Busch||Hendrick Motorsports||Checker Auto Parts 500||Phoenix International Raceway|
|6||2006||Tony Stewart||Joe Gibbs Racing||Banquet 400||Kansas Speedway|
|7||2006||Brian Vickers||Hendrick Motorsports||UAW-Ford 500||Talladega Superspeedway|
|8||2006||Tony Stewart||Joe Gibbs Racing||Bass Pro Shops 500||Atlanta Motor Speedway|
|9||2006||Tony Stewart||Joe Gibbs Racing||Dickies 500||Texas Motor Speedway|
|10||2006||Greg Biffle||Roush Racing||Ford 400||Homestead-Miami Speedway|
|11||2007||Greg Biffle||Roush Racing||LifeLock 400||Kansas Speedway|
|12||2009||Jamie McMurray||Roush Fenway Racing||AMP Energy 500||Talladega Superspeedway|
|13||2010||Jamie McMurray||Earnhardt Ganassi Racing||Bank of America 500||Charlotte Motor Speedway|
|14||2011||Clint Bowyer||Richard Childress Racing||Good Sam Club 500||Talladega Superspeedway|
|15||2011||Kasey Kahne||Red Bull Racing Team||Kobalt Tools 500||Phoenix International Raceway|
|16||2013||Brad Keselowski||Penske Racing||Bank of America 500||Charlotte Motor Speedway|
|17||2013||Jamie McMurray||Earnhardt Ganassi Racing||Camping World RV Sales 500||Talladega Superspeedway|
|18||2013||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Ford EcoBoost 400||Homestead-Miami Speedway|