Breaking down the new changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In one of the biggest changes of his 11-year administration, NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France on Thursday announced a new format to the Chase for the Sprint Cup designed to further emphasize winning and enhance fan excitement – and potentially create a vibe that sells more tickets and increases TV ratings in the process.

The new format “is as simple as it gets,” France said during a roughly 20-minute presentation to the press on the final day of the NASCAR Media Tour at the Charlotte Convention Center.

“We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter even more, diminishes points racing, puts a premium on winning races and concludes with a best-of-the-best, first-to-the-finish-line showdown race – all of which is exactly what fans want,” France said. “The new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be thrilling, easy to understand and help drive our sport’s competition to a whole new level.”

Here’s a breakdown on how the new format shakes out:

1) The Chase field will increase in size from 12 to 16 drivers. There will no longer be two wild card entries that make the Chase.

2) A win in the first 26 races all but guarantees a driver a berth in the 10-race Chase.

3) The top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races earn an automatic berth in what is being called the NASCAR Chase Grid – provided they leave Richmond, the 26th race, in the top 30 in points and have attempted to qualify for every race up to that point on the schedule.

4) If there are 16 or more different winners in the first 26 races, the only winless driver who can earn a berth would be the points leader after Richmond. For example, if Jeff Gordon goes through the first 26 races without a win but is the points leader after Richmond, he would be the only winless driver to qualify for the Chase.

5) If there are fewer than 16 race winners in the first 26 races, the 16-driver Chase field would be filled out with winless drivers with the most points following the first 26 races.

6) The points will be reset to 2,000 after the 16-driver Chase field is finalized following the September race at Richmond.

7) In perhaps the biggest key difference of the new format, the lowest-ranked four drivers (13th through 16th place) after the first three races will be eliminated from further advancement in the Chase, leaving 12 drivers. There will be a second round of elimination of the next-lowest four drivers (9th through 12th place) after the sixth race of the Chase, and a third round of elimination of the lowest four of the eight (5th through 8th place) remaining championship-eligible drivers after the ninth race. That sets up the biggest battle of the season, a four-driver winner-take-all race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

8) The first three races of the Chase will be known as the Challenger Round (races 27-29). The fourth through sixth races of the Chase will be known as the Contender Round (races 30-32). The seventh through ninth races of the Chase will be known as the Eliminator Round (races 33-35). The final race will be known simply as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (race 36).

9) Any driver that wins a race in the first three Chase races (the Challenger Round) automatically advances to the next round. Likewise, a driver that wins a race in the second round (Contender Round) advances to the third round, and a third-round (Eliminator Round) race winner advances to the four-driver final round (Sprint Cup Championship).

10) If one of the final four drivers wins the season finale at Homestead, he/she is the champion. Otherwise, the highest-finishing driver in the race would then win the championship. One other note about the season-ending race: there will be NO bonus points for laps led. All four drivers will start the race tied in points, with the highest finisher being crowned champion.

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Josef Newgarden wins pole for Grand Prix of Alabama

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With time running off the clock, Josef Newgarden lapped Barber Motorsports Park with a speed of 122.773 mph to win his third career pole and first on this track in the Grand Prix of Alabama.

Newgarden was .0128 seconds faster than teammate Scott Dixon in second.

Newgarden has two previous wins at Barber. He won last year’s edition of this race after starting seventh and in 2015 from fifth.

“I didn’t know if that was going to be enough,” Newgarden said after winning the pole.

“Team Chevy has done a good job,” Newgarden said. “They’ve really given us good power this weekend – good driveability. We’re going to need some fuel mileage tomorrow, which I think we’ll have. But it’s going to get mixed up with the rain.”

Dixon’s lap of 122.750 mph was not quite enough.

“I’m sure you could pick out a number of different things on a lap when it’s that close,” Power said about what made the slight difference between him and Newgarden. “A little mistake out of 9; a little lift here or there.”

Sebastien Bourdais (122.605 mph) qualified third, with Ryan Hunter-Reay (122.159) and James Hinchliffe (121.859) rounding out the top five.

Scott Dixon was the last driver in the top six.

Fast 12

Newgarden topped this chart with a speed of 123.475 mph.

He brought Power, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Sebastien Bourdais along with him to the Fast 6.

Marco Andretti (122.480), Alexander Rossi (122.216), Simon Pagenaud (122.050), Robert Wickens (122.042), Zach Veach (121.784) and Ed Jones (120.984) failed to advance.

Round 1, Group 1

Newgarden posted the fastest single lap in round one, group one of qualification for the Grand Prix of Alabama with a speed of 122.550 mph.

Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Wickens, and Andretti also advance to the fast 12.

Taking the final slot was Jones with a speed of 119.835 mph after an off-course excursion in final practice.

This was Andretti’s first advancement to the fast 12 for the first time since 2014.

Round 1, Group 2

Power had the fastest lap of 121.570 mph.

Bourdais, Veach (who is battling food poisoning-like symptoms), Rossi, and Pagenaud grabbed positions 2-4.

Scott Dixon had an uncharacteristically slow lap of 121.006, but managed to advance to the fast 12 when the session was red-flagged for an incident involving Tony Kanaan.

With three minutes remaining, Kanaan spun into the tire barriers while leaving pit road. Since he brought out the red flag, he lost his qualification time of 119.996 mph.

Takuma Sato had slipped off-course midway through the session and posted only the Ninth-fastest speed of 120.789 mph.