NASCAR unveiled a system Monday night that will divide races into three stages. NASCAR will award points to the top-10 drivers at the end of two designated stages during an event - and to the full field at the end of the race -- and will award bonus points for winning stages, and the overall race, that drivers will carry through NASCAR's playoffs.
"Every sport that I'm aware of makes enhancements almost every year to improve the fan experience," NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O'Donnell said. "The NBA went to a 3-point line -- it didn't change the entire game, it changed the strategy and rewarded players for different moves. The NFL moved the [PAT] back. To me, that's what this is. ... I don't look at this as a drastic change by any means."
NASCAR has been awarding drivers points on a 40-to-1 scale, based on their finish. The winner has received three bonus points, and drivers have earned a point for leading a lap and an additional point for leading the most laps. Drivers also have been able to carry three points for every win into the first round of the playoffs -- what has been known as the Chase, but NASCAR will now call the playoffs.
The new system:
- At the end of the race, the winner will get 40 points, and second through 35th will be awarded points on a 35-to-2 scale. Those finishing 36th to 40th will be awarded one point. There will be no bonus points for leading a lap or leading the most laps.
- NASCAR will award points to the top-10 drivers (on a 10-to-1 scale) at the end of each of the first two stages. The number of laps for each of the first two stages will be the same (and won't change if the caution comes out), and the end of the second stage will be approximately at the halfway point of the race. If it rains, a race would be official after the second stage.
- Drivers will now carry bonus points -- called "playoff points" -- throughout the entire playoffs (instead of just the first round) when the points get reset. Drivers will earn five playoff points for every race win and one playoff point for every stage win. The top-10 drivers in the standings in the regular season also earn additional playoff points on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale. Drivers will continue to accumulate points throughout the playoffs and carry all the points earned during the year into each of the first three playoff rounds.
- Qualifying for the playoffs remains the same -- the regular-season champion and 15 drivers based on wins (with ties broken by points) will get into the playoffs, as long as they are in the top 30 in the standings.
- The playoffs will remain divided into three three-race rounds, with four drivers eliminated after each round to set up four finalists for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Drivers automatically qualify into the next round with a win in that playoff round, and the remaining spots will filled via the point standings. At Homestead, the top-finishing driver (among the four finalists) at the end of the race wins the title.
- The race purse will be paid at the final stage.
- The 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona will be worth points to the top-10 drivers on a 10-to-1 scale (just like a race stage), but the winners do not get bonus points for the playoffs.
- NASCAR won't allow teams to replace body panels during a race, and teams will have additional limitations on crash repair that likely will mean most drivers who have to go to the garage won't return for that race.
"The old-school fan actually should love this," said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. "You're crowning your champion based off 36 races now again. It's not just that 10 races. Every single race matters."
NASCAR said it ran the new model for the 2016 season, and the same four drivers would have made the final and Jimmie Johnson still would have won the championship.
Among the biggest impacts will be the importance of qualifying, since that first stage will be approximately the first quarter of the race.
"It's a real subtle change once you stand back and look at it," said Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. "It's an interesting play that kind of does both [for excitement] for driver and the fans. [Qualifying poorly] will make it real hard to get any stage wins, for sure, and I'm a terrible qualifier.
"We seemed to improve our qualifying package in the later part of the year. ... The thing that I think is unique is a guy can win 60 points a race. You can have guys consistently getting 50, 55, 45 points a race instead of 40 and you're going to have guys building these incredible cushions throughout the season and stockpiling playoff points during the season."
The system will be in place for all three national series. The number of drivers and playoff rounds in Xfinity (12 drivers, two rounds before the final) and trucks (eight drivers, two rounds before the final) will not change. The caution clock used for the trucks, where the caution has come out after 20 consecutive minutes of green-flag racing, has been eliminated.
The big question: Will the fans be able to follow it throughout the season?
"You don't necessarily need to know how a watch works, you just need to know what time it is," Hamlin said. "You're going to see better racing on the race track, and that's all that matters."
NASCAR has collaborated with owners and drivers since last summer about how to enhance the races in hopes of increasing attendance and television ratings.
"[It will] make the racing even more compelling on an hour-by-hour basis, week in and week out," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said.