The NASCAR playoffs is a championship playoff system used in the NASCAR's three national series. The system was founded as 'The Chase for the Championship' on January 21, 2004, and was used exclusively in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 2004 to 2015. In 2016, NASCAR implemented a version of the Chase system in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series.
The NASCAR Cup Series version of the playoff system is often called the Chase for the Cup, and includes sixteen drivers that compete for the championship in the final ten races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The first nine races are divided into three rounds, with four participants being eliminated after each round. The Xfinity Series Chase format is competed over seven races with twelve drivers. The Camping World Truck Series Chase also is seven races long, but only includes eight drivers.
On January 23, 2017, NASCAR announced that they will not be using the word "Chase" which would be replaced by the word "Playoffs".
The publicly stated purpose for the NASCAR playoff 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 and Final Month of Major League Baseball Regular Season and Major League Baseball Playoffs Prior to the format, the Cup champion was sometimes determined mathematically prior to the season finale; a situation that existed in the lower-tier series, the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series, until they received their own playoff formats in 2016.
By resetting and compressing the scoring of the top 10 (later 12, then 16) drivers, the chances of each of those drivers winning the championship was increased, while not precluding anyone with a legitimate chance of winning. The original choice of top 10 drivers was based on the historical analysis that no driver outside the top 10, with 10 races remaining in the season, had ever gone on to win the Championship. The expansion to top 16 in 2014 made the elimination rounds possible.
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 and pilot Alan Kulwicki) 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 playoff system 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 playoff 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 playoffs, 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 playoffs system was announced on January 21, 2004 as the "Chase for the Championship", and first used during the 2004 Nextel Cup season. The format used from 2004 to 2006 was modified slightly starting with the 2007 season. 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 playoffs itself, were announced for the upcoming 2014 Sprint Cup Series. As of 2014, the 10-race playoff format 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 40 cars. The driver with the most points after the final 10 races is declared the champion.
Beginning with the 2008 Sprint Cup Series, the playoffs became known by its new name as a result of the merger of Nextel Communications with Sprint Corporation. From 2004 to 2006 some races aired on TNT, with the rest airing on NBC. From 2007-2009 all 10 races aired on ABC, but in 2010 NASCAR & ESPN quietly moved 9 of the 10 races to ESPN. In 2015 coverage returned to NBC with some races airing on NBCSN.
The current version of the playoff system was announced by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France on January 23, 2017. The current format is the fifth since it was introduced for the 2004 season, with significant changes made in both 2007 and 2011. The 2017 change is the 15th time since 1949 that the point system had been changed, these latest changes affect both the race format and the playoff seeding.
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 NASCAR Cup Series 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 NASCAR Cup Series 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 pace car. Had the pace 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 for the 10-race Chase. The 16 drivers are 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.
The new playoff system means that 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 was called the "Challenger Round", reducing the size of the field by 25%. The bottom four winless drivers have their points reset based on the standard points system, while the remaining 12 Chase drivers' points are reset to 3,000 points. 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). Any Chase driver who wins a race is automatically guaranteed a spot in the next round. Up to three drivers thus can advance to the next round of the Chase through race wins, regardless of their actual points position when the elimination race in that round happens. The remaining drivers advance on points. The round names were removed starting in 2016, being changed to "Round of 16", "Round of 12", "Round of 8", and "Championship 4".
The previous championship format, re-named NASCAR Playoffs, was maintained for the 2017 season, but with changes. A revised regular-season points system will be adopted, splitting races into three stages. Stages 1 and 2 are roughly 1/4 of the laps each, and stage 3 is about the last 1/2 of the race, except for the Coca-Cola 600 which is split into 4 equal lengths. The top 10 drivers at the end of the first two stages each race will earn additional bonus points towards the championship, 10 points for the first place car down to 1 point for the 10th place car. At the end of the race, the normal championship point scheme will be used to award points to the entire field. Additionally, "playoff points" will be awarded during the regular season for winning stages, winning races, and finishing the regular season in the top 16 on the championship points standings. 1 playoff point for the winner of a stage, 5 playoff points plus an automatic birth into the round of 16 for the race winner. (unless there are more than 16 race winners in the season, then the top 16 in race wins move on). Also, more bonus points for Top-10 in points standings at the end of the regular season: 1st place in regular season points earns 15 playoff bonus points in addition to the points earned with race or stage wins; 2nd place earns 10 playoff points; 3rd place: 8; 4th place: 7; 5th place: 6; 6th place: 5; 7th place: 4; 8th place: 3; 9th place: 2 and 10th place: 1. If a driver qualifies for the championship, these playoff points will be added into their point totals after the resets for the first 3 rounds (Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8). For the Round of 4, (final race) there is no bonus points awarded. The highest finishing driver of the 4 is declared the champion.  This means a driver can have less regular season points than another driver, but be seeded higher due to more wins.
The idea of NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick, drivers eliminated in each of the three rounds will be eligible to race for fifth place during the final races. Drivers eliminated in the first round will retain their Chase score (for example, a driver with one win during the season eliminated after scoring 75 points during the first round will score 2,080 points) and start the fourth race the same score after the first three races, and will accumulate points for the remainder of the season.
Drivers eliminated in the second or third round will have their score reverted to the score at the end of the first round, then their individual race scores for the three (eliminated in the second round) or six races (eliminated in the third round), respectively, before their eliminiation will be combined with the score after the third race of the first round for the driver's total score.
After ten races, the drivers positions 5-16 will be determined by the total number of points accumulated in the ten races (bonus points will apply), without the points resets of the second or third rounds, added to the driver's base Chase score with bonuses added.
The following are the ten race tracks at which the final ten Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races for the Championship. Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas) was added in 2005 as a result of the outcome of the Ferko lawsuit which eliminated Darlington Raceway (Darlington, South Carolina) by NASCAR. 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 2018, as part of a substantial schedule realignment, a number of further changes occurred in the Playoffs:
|Chicagoland Speedway||Joliet, IL||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||N/A|
|New Hampshire Motor Speedway||Loudon, NH||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||N/A|
|Dover International Speedway||Dover, DE||2||2||2||2||2||2||2||3||3||3||3||3||3||3||4|
|Charlotte Motor Speedway||Concord, NC||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||5||4||4||4||3|
|Talladega Superspeedway||Talladega, AL||3||3||4||4||4||7||7||6||4||6||6||6||6||5||5|
|Kansas Speedway||Kansas City, KS||4||4||3||3||3||3||3||4||6||4||4||5||5||6||6|
|Martinsville Speedway||Ridgeway, VA||6||6||6||6||6||6||6||7||7||7||7||7||7||7||7|
|Texas Motor Speedway||Fort Worth, TX||N/A||8||8||8||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||9||9||9|
|Homestead-Miami Speedway||Homestead, FL||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10||10|
|Las Vegas Motor Speedway||Las Vegas, NV||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||1|
|Richmond International Raceway||Richmond, VA||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||2|
|Atlanta Motor Speedway||Hampton, GA||7||7||7||7||7||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Auto Club Speedway||Fontana, CA||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||4||4||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Darlington Raceway||Darlington, SC||9||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
Seven different drivers have won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship since the playoff system was implemented in 2004. Jimmie Johnson has the most championships under the playoff format with seven, while Tony Stewart is the only other driver to win multiple championships since the system was introduced.
|Year||Champion||Team||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s|
|2004||Kurt Busch||Roush Racing||3||10||21|
|2005||Tony Stewart||Joe Gibbs Racing||5||17||25|
|2006||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||5||13||24|
|2011||Tony Stewart||Stewart-Haas Racing||5||9||19|
|2012||Brad Keselowski||Penske Racing||5||13||23|
|2013||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||6||16||24|
|2014||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||5||14||20|
|2015||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||5||12||16|
|2016||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||5||11||16|
|2017||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||8||19||26|
Below are the hypothetical champions if the playoffs had not been implemented. Given the many ways that the playoffs change race strategy, there is no way to know if these results would have actually occurred.
On January 19, 2016, NASCAR announced the introduction of a playoff format for the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series. Both series use the same elimination formula as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, however, with some modifications (most notably, smaller fields, and only two rounds of elimination instead of three, due to both having seven races in their playoff formats compared to the ten in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs). In the Truck playoffs, there are only eight drivers eligible for the title. At both elimination races (Talladega and Phoenix), the bottom two drivers in the playoffs standings are eliminated from contention. The Xfinity playoffs has twelve drivers, and the bottom four in points are eliminated at the end of each round (Charlotte and Phoenix).