NASCAR to place emphasis on winning, widen Chase field to 12

Published 4:23 am Tuesday, January 23, 2007

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE — Kasey Kahne won a series-high five races during NASCAR’s regular season, yet barely qualified for the championship chase because of a points system that has long rewarded consistency over winning.
But under a series of adjustments announced Monday, the emphasis has been shifted to winning. In doing so, NASCAR might also have ensured that its biggest stars will almost always qualify for the Chase for the championship.
Beginning this season, the Chase will have 12 drivers — up from 10 — and the field will be seeded based on ‘‘regular-season’’ victories.
It starts in the 26-race ‘‘regular season,’’ where wins now will be worth 185 points. That’s up five points from years past, and assuming the winning driver also picks up other bonuses during the race, a victory can be worth as much as 25 points more than second place.
In addition, those wins will be worth a 10-point bonus that will be used to ‘‘seed’’ the drivers when the 10-race Chase begins.
During the Chase’s first three years, the drivers’ point totals were reset in five-point increments when the postseason began. Now, all drivers’ totals will be reset to 5,000, and each will receive a 10-point bonus for each victory during the first 26 races.
In other words, Kahne would have received 50 points in bonuses and started last year’s Chase in first place.
And, with the field now at 12 drivers, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle both would have qualified.
The final outcome wouldn’t have changed, though: Jimmie Johnson still would have won the Nextel Cup title, but Stewart would have finished in second place — 16 points out.
France said the sanctioning body struggled with the numbers before finalizing this new version of the Chase.
Reaction to the changes was mixed.
Carl Edwards, who finished third in the 2005 Chase but failed to qualify last year, said the new system should make drivers more aggressive.
But in expanding the field by another two drivers, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage wondered if it doesn’t dilute the competition.
France launched the Chase in 2004 to create a championship format similar to other professional leagues, and to drum up interest in NASCAR during the stretch of the season that competes with the NFL for TV ratings. The original format called for the top 10 drivers — and anyone within 400 points of the leader — to advance to a 10-race countdown to the Nextel Cup title.
The first season was a success, with five drivers entering the season finale with a mathematical chance to win the title. Kurt Busch beat Johnson by eight points in the closest finish in NASCAR history.
NASCAR was slightly disappointed in Year 2, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon — the sport’s two most marketable drivers — failed to make the Chase. Stewart, meanwhile, used a cautious and consistent strategy to win the title.
Johnson won the Chase this past season, battling back after a regular-season crash dropped him to ninth in the standings.
Long before last year’s Chase even began, France announced plans to tweak the system. He wasn’t sure what he planned to do but repeatedly said he wasn’t looking at widening the field.
Apparently that changed.
It’s possible NASCAR always expected the field to occasionally include more than 10 drivers. The trouble was, no driver outside the top 10 was ever within 400 points of the leader. Now, that 400-point cushion has been scrapped.
Despite criticism from longtime fans who preferred the consistency-based championship format, France said he still believes the Chase is the best thing for NASCAR.