Break out the brackets: Drivers react to 'great addition' of in-season tournament for 2025

Break out the brackets: Drivers react to 'great addition' of in-season tournament for 2025

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — The full schedule for the 2025 NASCAR Cup Series hasn’t been made final yet, but one intriguing aspect is already taking shape, with the potential to bring a new audience to the season within the season.

This week’s announcement of an in-season tournament for TNT Sports’ five-race segment of next year’s schedule has the promise of intrigue and subplots to the yearlong championship hunt. With 32 drivers in an elimination-style bracket format, it’s a form of the NCAA Tournament’s March Madness that has its own offshoot. Call it NASCAR’s Midsummer Madness.

The Cup Series arrived Friday at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where the NASCAR All-Star Race (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) will award the winner a $1 million check. Another $1 million prize will await the tournament champ after next season’s bracket plays out.

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“I mean, I think it’s going to be a great addition to the sport,” said Christopher Bell, driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota. “And it’s certainly going to open up the strategy a lot, because it really creates a head-to-head racing scenario where if the yellow flag comes out, you might just do the opposite of the guy that you’re racing — regardless of what that does to your finishing position. So I think it’s going to be awesome for the sport, and it’s going to be really fun to pay attention and see how it influences the race.”

The tournament is set for a June 28 start with a Saturday night show at Atlanta Motor Speedway to open the TNT Sports portion of the schedule. The network will air NASCAR events for the first time since 2014, and its part of the Cup Series slate comes after a five-race stint for broadcast newcomer Amazon Prime. The final three of those races will set the field of 32 for the tournament.

More details are still to come about seeding process, the rest of the format, and the four races that will follow Atlanta. Denny Hamlin, long a proponent of the tournament-style system, said what won’t change is the fundamentals of the race; the extra head-to-head element just adds another layer, and the parallels with fantasy sports have the potential to draw casual fans.

“All it is is a competition within a competition,” Hamlin said after Friday’s Cup Series practice at North Wilkesboro. “So you’re hopefully going to have the storylines, the things to talk about, the drama of a high seed beating a low seed, those things matter. In a sport where sometimes its news is tough on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I think you’re going to have things to talk about. Certainly in the world where I believe that football took off in many, many, many years ago is getting people involved in fantasy. All of a sudden, people cared about their fantasy teams, not their favorite teams. And this creates something like that, where you’re going to have a Chase Elliott fan rooting for Denny Hamlin one week because they’ve got me in their bracket. I mean, it’s going to create those storylines.

“And certainly, you’re going to have friends talking amongst each other about … they’re going to create their own groups of brackets. So I just think it’s really, really positive, and it’s certainly the jumping-off point of where I think other sports have grown, and we’re just now getting there.”

The spotlight will be an extra coverage point for the sport’s new broadcast teams at TNT and Prime, which have already made a splash by signing Dale Earnhardt Jr. as an analyst.

“I think it’s probably something a new TV partner wants to dive into, right?” said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, the defending Cup Series champ. “It kind of gives them something to promote and put on TV for both TNT and Amazon. So that’s good, and it’ll be exciting.”

MORE: Cup Series standings

Speculation has already begun about the potential of extra incentives for the tournament winner — whether it be playoff points, a postseason berth (if not already clinched) or another prize that extends outside of the five-race span. The additional seven-figure payday may be incentive enough.

The races will be run with at least 36 teams as usual, but the bracket format may potentially pit teammates 1-on-1 against each other, set up showdowns between rivals, and open the door for a Cinderella to take down a powerhouse and advance to the next round. It’s already a tantalizing side note to the overall competition.

“When it comes down to it, I’ve had experience with Triple Truck Challenge and Dash 4 Cash and yeah, it’s impossible not to pay attention to the other people,” said Trackhouse’s Ross Chastain. “I’m greedy, I’m selfish, I want to win. I want to win points, I want to win lap time, and I want to win money. So of course when we get there, we’ll know who we’re racing against.”