NASCAR implemented a "playoff" system beginning in 2004, that they coined the "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup". Currently, only NASCAR's top series uses the system. In the original version of the Chase (2004–2006), following the 26th race of the season, all drivers in the top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader got a spot in the 10-race playoff. Like the current system, drivers in the Chase had their point totals adjusted. However, it was based on the number of points at the conclusion of the 26th race. The first-place driver in the standings led with 5,050 points; the second-place driver started with 5,045. Incremental five-point drops continued through 10th place with 5,005 points).
The first major change to the Chase was announced by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France on January 22, 2007. After 26 races, the top 12 drivers advanced to contend for the points championship and points were reset to 5000. Each driver within the top 12 received an additional 10 points for each win during the "regular season," or first 26 races, thus creating a seeding based on wins. As in previous years, the Chase consisted of 10 races and the driver with the most points at the conclusion of the 10 races was the NEXTEL Cup Series Champion. Under the points system then in use, drivers could earn 5 bonus points for leading the most laps, and 5 bonus points for leading a single lap. Brian France explained why NASCAR made the changes to the chase:
"The adjustments taken put a greater emphasis on winning races. Winning is what this sport is all about. Nobody likes to see drivers content to finish in the top 10. We want our sport -- especially during the Chase -- to be more about winning."
Beginning with the 2008 season, the playoff became known as the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" due to the NEXTEL/Sprint merger.
The current format of the Chase was announced by France on January 26, 2011, along with several other changes, most significantly to the points system. After 26 races, 12 drivers will still advance to the Chase, but the qualifying criteria have changed, as well as the number of base points that drivers receive at the points reset.
Only the top 10 drivers in points now automatically qualify for the Chase. They are joined by two "wild card" qualifiers, specifically the two drivers ranked from 11th through 20th in points who have the most race wins (with tiebreakers used if needed to select exactly two qualifiers). These drivers then have their base points reset to 2,000 instead of the previous 5,000, reflecting the greatly reduced points available from each race (a maximum of 48 for the race winner, as opposed to a maximum of 195 in the pre-2011 system). After the reset, the 10 automatic qualifiers receive 3 bonus points for each race win, while the wild card qualifiers receive no bonus.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup has been generally panned since its inception, as many drivers and owners have criticized the declining importance of the first 26 races, as well as very little change in schedule from year to year. Mike Fisher, the director of the NASCAR Research and Development Center, has been one of the more vocal critics of the system, saying that "Due to NASCAR having the same competitors on the track week in, week out, a champion emerges. In stick-and-ball sports, every team has a different schedule, so head-to-head series are necessary to determine a champion. That does not apply to auto racing."
Read more about this topic: Playoffs? PLAYOFFS?!