How Does the Chase for the Sprint Cup Work?

The Procedure for Deciding NASCAR's Champion

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Gone are the days of traditional NASCAR points racing during either a 26-race regular season or a 10-race championship period. The field expanded from 12 to 16 in 2013, and now entry is primarily determined by race victories rather than the old-style accumulation of championship points. NASCAR now uses a 10-event elimination-style format to decide the next Sprint Cup Series Champion.

The Regular Season

Sixteen drivers qualify for the Chase for the Championship in a bracket called the Chase Grid.

The top 15 drivers with the most wins — not points — during the 26-race regular season automatically qualify for the playoffs regardless of where they end up in the standings, provided they attempted to qualify for every race and they consistently remained in the top 30 in the standings throughout the season. NASCAR retains the right to issue a medical exception for a winning driver who misses several races due to injury but remains inside the top 30.

The idea is to increase the value of actually winning the races. The drivers are going after victories rather than settling for a place in the top 5 and a "good points day," a phrase that NASCAR fans were beginning to loathe. 

The 16th Driver 

The 16th and final spot is reserved for the championship leader after the 26th race if he doesn’t already have a win. Otherwise, the 16th spot goes to the highest winner not already in the Chase.

It's unlikely that more than 16 winners will each win a race during the regular season — it's never happened during the sport’s modern era.

The average number of race wins by different winners during the Chase era has been around 13. If fewer than 16 different drivers make it to Victory Lane, the remaining spots on the Chase Grid are filled by the highest drivers in the standings without a win, maintaining a tiny element of points racing in the new system.

 

No matter how it plays out, 16 different drivers enter the first round of the Chase with roughly an equal shot to win the Sprint Cup Championship. Ties are broken by number of wins and the driver's position in the standings.

The Challenger Round

The Chase itself is made up of four distinct rounds best described as the "Sweet 16 on Wheels." The format features eliminations of four drivers every three races in three race periods called the Challenger Round, the Contender Round and the Eliminator Round. Then there's the Championship Race for all the marbles. 

The bottom four drivers in the Chase Grid are eliminated from contention after the first three races of the Challenger round. This leaves 12 drivers to advance to the next round. An exception is made for any Chase driver who wins either of the first two races — a win would result in an automatic advancement so he couldn't be eliminated in the third. Winning matters above all else in this new format.

The Contender Round

Just like the round that preceded it, the Contender Round cuts the four drivers at the bottom of the standings that haven’t won after the next three Chase races. The same rules apply as before with victories among the remaining Chasers resulting in an automatic advancement to the next round.

Only eight Chase drivers will remain after the Contender Round.

The Eliminator Round

The next three races of the Chase decide who will compete in the championship race. The same rules that applied in the first two rounds also apply in the Eliminator Round. Winning a race as a remaining championship-eligible driver results in automatic advancement. The bottom four of those remaining in contention without a win in the round are cut, leaving four drivers to race for the Sprint Cup. 

The Championship Race

Be the first to finish line -- that's the goal for the four remaining Chase drivers in the season finale. The first championship-eligible driver to cross the finish line wins the Sprint Cup championship. It's that simple. The final race features neither points nor bonuses, just the requirement that contenders must beat their championship rivals.

 

Drivers who were eliminated in previous rounds have their points readjusted so they can continue points-racing for championship positions 5 through 16. Each eliminated driver returns to the Chase-start base of 2,000 points plus any regular season bonuses and the points they earned up until their elimination.