Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Rookie Stripe: What is The Chase for the Sprint Cup and how does it work?

There’s something gut-hooking about a sports championship. Even if you’re not all that loyal to the sport, the hot burning rubber, hoopla and rabid fandom are enough to diffuse the exhilaration and excite anyone.

Just like the NFL has the Super Bowl or professional basketball has the NBA Finals, NASCAR too has a championship. It’s called the Chase for the Sprint Cup, named of course, after the top-tier series’ title sponsor. When Sprint goes away as NASCAR’s primary sponsor after 2016, that part of the name will be replaced, but “The Chase” continues to unite race fans in a blaze of excitement year after year.

Credit: Logan Stewart for Skirts and Scuffs
Only one driver can win the Chase. And it’s a crusade to the end. NASCAR’s championship has more layers to it than those of other sports, so here’s my best attempt at an explanation.

Breaking it down:
  • NASCAR drivers earn points at every race depending on how they place, and they can earn bonus points. Their cumulative score can determine if they make the Chase, so points are very important. 
  • As of 2015, 16 drivers* qualify for the Chase, or are “on the Chase Grid.” These drivers are made up of:
    A) 15 drivers who had the most race wins during the 26 races of the regular season, no matter how many points they have by the time the Chase rolls around. Those 15 drivers must also attempt to qualify for every race**, and be in the top 30 in points overall.
    B) The 16th spot is reserved for the driver leading the series in points, in case he or she does not have a win by the start of the Chase. If there is no such driver, that 16th slot will go to the next highest points winner.
*It is unusual in any given season for there to be even 15 or 16 individual race winners, as stronger drivers tend to win multiple races in a season. If, for example, 12 drivers were to qualify for the Chase based on wins, the final four slots would go to the drivers highest in points.
**NASCAR has the option to grant a waiver to any driver who is unable to attempt to qualify for all races. In 2015 both Kurt and Kyle Busch were granted waivers.

In 2014, legendary college basketball announcer Dick Vitale compared the Chase for the Sprint Cup to the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen saying, "You got to have the right combination, baby. You got to have the momentum and a smart strategy for each track, and you need the team leader in the right crew chief to call the NASCAR pick and rolls and get in and out of those pit boxes like a quick basketball timeout, making your adjustments to win it at the end.”
Credit: Logan Stewart for Skirts and Scuffs

The Rounds
It begins to get merciless during rounds. The Chase for the Sprint Cup includes four elimination rounds that essentially dispense with the drivers who don’t perform well. There’s a palpable bloodthirstiness and the fans love it. The rounds were first introduced in 2014 and are as follows:

Challenger Round – Chicagoland, New Hampshire, Dover
The 16 qualifying drivers on the Chase Grid are fighting for just 12 spots available in the Contender Round. If a driver wins a race, he or she will advance, and the rest of the field that advances is set by points.

Contender Round – Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega
The 12 drivers competing in this round will be narrowed to 8 who will move on to the Eliminator Round. If a driver wins a race, he or she will advance, and again the remaining field is determined by points.

Eliminator Round – Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix
Eight drivers compete in these three races to slice the field to just the final four who will vie for the championship in the final race of the season. If a driver wins, he or she will advance and the final slots are determined by points.

Homestead-Miami Speedway - The final race and the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Regardless of who wins the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the driver with the most points after the final 10 races is declared the champion.

Other facts to know about the Chase for the Sprint Cup:
Credit: Logan Stewart for Skirts and Scuffs

  • The Chase began in 2004 when Nextel took over naming rights from Winston. It was called the Chase for the Nextel Cup from 2004 to 2007. 
  • The format for the Chase has changed four times since NASCAR instituted the championship in 2004, including big changes in 2007, 2011 and 2014. 
  • Because of a split NASCAR broadcast in 2015 between Fox Sports and NASCAR on NBC, NBC will carry the rights to the final 20 NASCAR races including the Chase for the Sprint Cup. (The Chase was formerly carried by ESPN)
  • Jimmie Johnson (with six titles) and Tony Stewart (with two titles) are the only drivers to hold multiple titles under the Chase format.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup and its changes over the years isn't the most easily digestible topic for a new race fan, so get a hang of the basics first. If you feel like you’ve dug your knuckles in pretty well, do some reading on the relatively short history of this prestigious championship and why it’s so important to racing. For starters, here’s more information from on facts and FAQs on the format, and more from Fox Sports on how qualifying changed after 2014.


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