By Brendan O’Meara
The Chase shines bright as the North Star for every driver stepping into the cockpit of a stock car from the moment the green flag waves at the Daytona 500 until checkers wave at Richmond to end the regular season.
The Chase means two things over the course of 36 races from February to November. One, it represents NASCAR’s 10-race playoff (more on this later). Two, more abstractly, it refers to the 26-race regular season where drivers are in pursuit of—chasing—a berth in the playoffs.
We’ll now explore how the Chase unfolds and the role Dover International Speedway plays in it.
Win and you’re in
It doesn’t matter how many points a driver earns over the course of the season any longer. So long as a driver wins a race, the driver qualifies for the Chase. It doesn’t matter where drivers sit in the standings. They could sit at 29th in the standings, but if by the grace of serendipity they grab that elusive checkered flag, they earn a chance at the Sprint Cup.
More drivers, more chaos, more pressure
In 2014, NASCAR tweaked how drivers qualify for the Chase. Now, 16 total drivers punch tickets to the Chase. That all but ensures that most of NASCAR’s top stars make the playoffs along with some underdogs. Long shots rarely have a chance at the ultimate prize, but if they win like Aric Almirola did during a red-flag, rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 in 2014, then that’s how the chassis shakes.
Four rounds to Homestead
Last year’s Chase was about as pressure packed as it gets.
The four rounds in the Chase give drivers that true elimination pressure; that way drivers can’t just accumulate points all the way to Homestead, where the championship runs. Every race that ever ended a round was a veritable Game 7.
The Challenger Round
The first round is the Challenger Round and all 16 Chase-eligible drivers are given 2,000 points. It’s simple: Win and you’re in.
Drivers then head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the second leg. Again, win and you advance. The third and final race of the Contender Round is where the pressure gets hot and where Dover enters the picture.
At Dover International Speedway, the Monster Mile, four drivers pursue a championship end. That No. 12 spot is the coveted place in the points for the Chase contenders. During that race, every lap, a ticker runs across the screen showing those drivers on the fringe.
That’s what makes the final leg of each round so great and what will make Dover’s race on Oct. 4 the first truly intense race of the Chase.
The Contender Round
Twelve drivers advance and the points get reset to 3,000. It doesn’t matter who won before. The 12 drivers start fresh.
Again, win and you advance to the Eliminator Round. This time only eight drivers surface from Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway for the next round.
The Eliminator Round
Eight compete with the points reset this time to 4,000. The field heads to Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Speedway. Win and advance.
Only four move on to the final race of the Chase: Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Championship Round
The four remaining drivers get 5,000 points. Whoever finishes highest among the four wins the Sprint Cup.
The reconfigured Chase format adds intensity to every race, but especially the final race of each round. Dover, Talladega and Phoenix are where you’ll see how drivers handle the pressure when desperation is at its highest.
Nothing is a given and no driver can coast to Miami.
Follow the chase for the Spring Cup in person when NASCAR returns to Dover Speedway October 2 to 4. Visit www.doverspeedway.com for ticket packages.