Taking a big step to try to boost its sagging popularity, NASCAR on Thursday dramatically changed its 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff.
The new format puts more emphasis on drivers' winning races all season, rather than simply collecting championship points. It also features elimination rounds during the Chase so that by the season-ending race only four remaining Chase drivers will have a chance to win the title.
"It's going to be the first of four drivers to cross the finish line, and that will define the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion," NASCAR Chairman Brian France told a news conference in Charlotte, N.C. "That's as simple as it gets."
After surging in popularity into the mid-2000s, NASCAR in recent years has seen attendance and television ratings decline. Although still among the nation's most popular sports, NASCAR has been looking for ways to ignite additional interest in stock car racing.
Its solution is giving drivers more incentive to win each week and to create an elimination-style Chase format that more closely resembles late-season playoffs in other major sports.
Many NASCAR drivers, team owners and track operators welcomed the changes.
"Nobody buys a ticket to see a point championship," Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage said in a statement. "People are buying a ticket to see a race."
The Chase, which debuted in 2004, comes after the first 26 races of the Cup series' season. Previously, the 10 drivers who had collected the most points in the first 26 races, along with two wild-card drivers, made the Chase.
Now, the initial Chase field will be expanded to 16 drivers, and a win in one of the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the Chase.
If there are fewer than 16 winners, the remaining Chase spots would go to those winless drivers highest in points. The Chase races, like all NASCAR Cup races, will have a field of 43 drivers.
"This new format rewards winning," France said. "It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule."
Once the Chase starts, the Chase field will be whittled down by four drivers at a time after the third, sixth and ninth races. A win by a Chase contender in each round automatically advances them to the next round.
Finally, the driver who finishes highest among the remaining four drivers at the season finale at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway wins the championship.
The new format means that a driver could win all of the first nine Chase races and still lose the title if they finished behind another of the final four Chase contenders at Homestead-Miami.
France said NASCAR fans would find the new format more exciting and easier to follow. He also acknowledged that the new format was "going to force the teams to take more risk in the race.
"If it's late in the race and you've got a faster car, we expect some contact" as drivers battle for the win, France said. "Obviously, there are limits, but that's always part of NASCAR. Will this bring more of that? I'm sure it will to some level."