CHARLOTTE — NASCAR has a new way to determine its champion.
The most popular form of motor sports in the United States announced a dramatic overhaul of its playoff format on Thursday, creating a championship race for the first time in its history.
Previously, the Chase for the Sprint Cup was a 10-race playoff. The top 12 drivers — or an unprecedented 13 drivers in 2013 — in the 26-race regular season had their points totals reset and whoever collected the most points over 10 weeks won the championship.
But beginning this year, that will all change.
SIX-TIME CHAMP: Johnson shocked by dramatic overhaul
Sixteen drivers will now make the field based on whether or not they've won a race — not their points totals. The 16th position will go to the points leader after the Sept. 6 race at Richmond International Raceway, the regular-season finale.
"This new format rewards winning," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in announcing the change Thursday. "It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule. It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line."
In more detail, via a NASCAR statement: "The top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will earn a spot in the NASCAR Chase Grid — provided they have finished in the top 30 in points and attempted to qualify for every race (except in rare instances like medical issues). The 16th Chase position will go to the points leader after race No. 26, if he/she does not have a victory. In the event that there are 16 or more different winners over 26 races, the only winless driver who can earn a Chase Grid spot would be the points leader after 26 races.
"If there are fewer than 16 different winners in the first 26 races, the remaining Chase Grid positions will go to those winless drivers highest in points. If there are 16 or more winners in the first 26 races, the ties will first be broken by number of wins, followed by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver points."
After Richmond, the field will be whittled down via a series of eliminations — a NASCAR first. After every three Chase races, four drivers will be cut.
The first three races of the Chase (27-29) will be known as the Challenger Round with drivers eliminated Sept. 28 at Dover International Speedway. The 12 drivers remaining will have points reset to 3,000.
Races 30-32 will be known as the Contender Round with drivers eliminated Oct. 19 at Talladega Superspeedway. The eight drivers remaining will have their points reset to 4,000.
Races 33-35 will be the Eliminator Round, with the four remaining drivers having their points reset to 5,000. To reach the final four, drivers will be eliminated at the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 9.
That will leave four drivers still eligible for the championship during the Nov. 16 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Whoever finishes highest among the four title-eligible drivers is NASCAR's new champion. Bonus points will not be awarded in the finale.
"No math, no bonus points for leading laps, previous wins," France said. "It's going to be the first of four drivers to cross the finish line, and that will define the NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion. You know what? That's as simple as it gets."
Another wrinkle: In another attempt to emphasize winning, any driver who wins a Chase race will automatically advance to the next round. If a driver has trouble in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, for example, a win in either of the next two races would still earn a spot in Round 2.
The Chase was already a major departure from how NASCAR decided the champion for most of its history. Until the Chase was implemented in 2004, the champion was the driver who collected the most points over an entire season (there was no reset or playoff).
NASCAR tweaked the format in 2007, when the field expanded from 10 to 12 drivers, and in 2011, when the final two Chase spots were changed to wild cards.
Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, asked fans to give the new rule a chance.
"There are passionate fans out there, and I hear them as well," he said. "Those who may not like this are very passionate about it. What I would say is instead of dismissing them, we very much value their opinion. It's OK. But I'd say, 'Give this a chance, because it's still the sport you love. We're just going to take the sport you love and elevate it that much more.' "
France said Thursday drivers he had spoken to were "mostly positive" about the changes. He said the "biggest risk would be not to do it" because the new format achieved so much of what NASCAR was about.
Sure enough, drivers seemed to largely welcome the announcement on Twitter.
"Winning has always been important in @NASCAR @Sprint Cup but wow just became THE way to win championship!" Jeff Gordon tweeted. "Exciting!"