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NASCAR announces sweeping changes to Chase, including winner-take-all final race

NASCAR is guaranteeing that the Sprint Cup Series season championship will come down to the final race of the year.

The sanctioning body announced Thursday that the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be winner-take-all. The top four drivers in the points standings heading into the season finale will be eligible for the title and the highest-finishing driver will win the championship.

The Chase playoff format will still consist of the final 10 races of the 36-race season. However, the Chase field will be expanded from 12 to 16 drivers in 2014. With the expansion of the Chase field, NASCAR will eliminate drivers every three races. After the first three races, the Chase will be whittled down to 12 drivers, eliminating the four lowest-scoring drivers. After the next three, the Chase will be down to eight drivers, and after the ninth race of the Chase, four drivers will be left. Those are the four drivers eligible to win the championship.

It's important to note that throughout the 10 years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the championship has never been decided before the final race of the season. Now, any advantage a driver has built up throughout the first nine races is gone.

A driver will automatically advance to the next elimination stage if he or she wins a race in that three-race span. For example, if Jimmie Johnson wins the first race of the Chase at Chicago, but finishes last at the next two races and is 15th in the standings, he'll automatically advance to the next round of three races.

The 16-driver field will also be determined differently. Any driver with a win in the first 26 races of the season will likely qualify for the Chase. If more than 16 drivers win a race (which is very unlikely), the highest 16 drivers in the points standings will be in the Chase. If less than 16 drivers win a race, the highest-ranking drivers without wins will fill out the 16-driver field.

And on and on the rules go.

If 16 or more drivers win a race and the points leader after the first 26 races is winless, the points leader will make the Chase. Because of the changes to the criteria to make the Chase, NASCAR has touted a renewed emphasis on winning for its competitors. That's not the case. If the new system was in place in 2013, a winless Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have won the championship.

The drivers in the Chase will have their points reset to 2,000 at the beginning of the Chase. In 2013, the Chase contained 12 drivers; the top 10 in the NASCAR points standings and the two drivers outside of the top 10 with the most wins.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup was established in 2004 and originally included 10 drivers. The move to 12 was made in 2007. In 2013, a 13th driver, Jeff Gordon, was added to the Chase after allegations of race manipulation by Michael Waltrip Racing. Because of the manipulation, all three of MWR's cars were penalized and Gordon was added to the Chase field.

Like or dislike NASCAR's changes? Let us know at HappyHourMailbag@Yahoo.com. we'll run our discussion on Friday.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of From The Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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