AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR is expanding its Chase format to include its feeder series, meaning the champions from the Xfinity and Truck Series will now be crowned in a four-driver shootout at the season finale.
The format announced Tuesday by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France mostly mirrors the playoff-style setup used to determine the Sprint Cup champion the last two years. That system has 16 drivers race through three rounds of eliminations to establish a field of four in which the highest finisher in the finale wins the championship.
The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will use a seven-race Chase to decide their champions. The Cup series uses a 10-race format.
All three series will crown a champ at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, all three will begin at different tracks: Chicago (Sprint Cup), Kentucky (Xfinity) and New Hampshire (Trucks).
France said the change will prepare the sport’s young drivers for the challenges of winning a championship at the Sprint Cup level.
“I think it’s important that they understand how difficult it’s going to be when they get to the next level,” France said. “Certainly, it makes it more exciting for our fans. Fans love elimination style and emphasis on wins. I think for the drivers, I think it’s important to get conditioned to what it’s going to take . to handle the next level.”
There will be 12 drivers eligible for the Xfinity Chase, which will then be whittled to eight drivers and conclude with a final four championship race at Homestead. In Trucks, the format is eight drivers cut down to six and then a final four at Homestead.
NASCAR said the 16 Sprint Cup drivers who qualified for last year’s Chase will not be eligible to compete in the lower-tier championship races. That eliminates Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano — drivers who often moonlight in at least the Xfinity Series — from participating in the season finale.
Other changes announced for the two lower series Tuesday include:
— A caution clock for the Truck Series. The clock will be set to 20 minutes and triggered at the start of each green-flag run. When the clock reaches zero, the caution flag will be displayed. The clock will be restarted when the green flag reappears.
— In the Xfinity Series, the four “Dash 4 Cash” races will include two heat races and a main event. Results of the heat races will set the starting field for the main. The fields for the heat races will be set via qualifying. Those races are at Bristol, Richmond, Dover and Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, France said he is so optimistic about the upcoming season that rain is NASCAR’s most pressing concern. Two races last year were postponed a day, while several others had lengthy weather delays. The start of the season finale was delayed, and the event at Phoenix that decided the championship field was called before its completion, denying drivers a chance to race their way into the finale.
“There is no pressing thing that I would like to see get resolved. We have really worked at things that were out in front of us that we thought we could improve on in the industry,” he said. “But we can’t do anything about the rain, other than we can probably add some more Air Titans (jet dryers) over time to speed it up, but hopefully we’ll get a little break on that in 2016.”
Others topics covered Tuesday:
— France said he is “very optimistic” that NASCAR and Sprint Cup teams will come to an agreement on a charter system that will give owners more economic security.
— Sprint is in the final year of its contract as title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series, but France was confident a replacement will be found for 2017.
— All Sprint Cup teams will be required to use digital dashboards beginning this year. “We’re going to embrace technology and innovation,” said France. “We don’t want to break the bank for the track operators, the team owners, or other stakeholders, but we’re going to need to figure it out as we go along.”
— NASCAR is committed to a low-downforce rules package that will be used everywhere this season except Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR experimented with several different packages before settling on one that everyone hopes will improve passing opportunities.
— International Speedway Corp. is eyeing Phoenix and Richmond as the next two tracks in need of capital improvements.
“It’s so important to continue to modernize these tracks and to be able to bring the modern-day amenities and comforts into these tracks,” said ISC CEO Lesa France Kennedy.