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In exactly four weeks and four days, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will return to Phoenix International Raceway, kicking off an historic season for the track as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

However, a pair of major announcements from NASCAR this spring mean that PIR will not only be celebrating its history this season, it will also be on the forefront of two significant changes in stock car racing. The spring race weekend at PIR will showcase a new qualifying format for the first time, while the fall race will serve as a true “semifinal” in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

New points system puts a premium on winning

NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Brian France announced changes to the Sprint Cup Series scoring system this morning which will affect the initial makeup of the Chase field as well as the Chase itself. The result of the changes will make the November race weekend in Phoenix even more crucial to the drivers racing for a series championship.

“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,” said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO. “We have looked at a number of concepts for the last three years through fan research, models and simulations, and also maintained extensive dialogue with our drivers, teams and partners. 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.”

Following is a brief explanation of the new system:

-       A victory in the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – a change that will put an unprecedented importance on winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race all season long

-       Expanding the Chase field from 12 to 16 drivers, with those drivers advancing to what now will be known as the NASCAR Chase Grid

-       The number of championship drivers in contention for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will decrease after every three Chase races, from 16 to start in the Chase Grid; 12 after Chase race No. 3; eight after Chase race No. 6; and four after Chase race No. 9

-       The first three races of the Chase (27-29) will be known as the Challenger Round; races 30-32 will be known as the Contender Round; races 33-35 will be the Eliminator Round and race No. 36 will be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship

-       A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next Chase round

-       Four drivers will enter the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship with a chance at the title, with the highest finisher among those four capturing the prestigious NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

PIR President Bryan R. Sperber joined France and many of NASCAR’s top drivers in praising the new scoring system.

“I think the new scoring system will have a very positive impact on the quality of racing. Winning has always been the goal of every racer, but the changes announced today put an even greater emphasis on winning races,” Sperber said.

Sperber was also excited about the impact that the changes will have on PIR’s fall race date.

“This new Chase format will bring an even higher profile to our fall race weekend,” he said. “The November Cup race in Phoenix has been a fixture on the NASCAR calendar for the last 25 years, and these changes will only add to that. Our 50th anniversary is all about celebrating the rich racing history in Phoenix, and it’ll be great to cap it of by making some NASCAR history.”

New qualifying system to debut at Phoenix in March

Earlier this month, NASCAR vice president for competition and racing development Robin Pemberton announced that qualifying for all three national touring series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series – will be done in groups rather than individually.

Because the Daytona 500 has its own unique qualification system, the change will take effect during the second race weekend of the season – at Phoenix International Raceway.

For the first time in NASCAR history, race fans will be able to watch cars qualify in situations that more closely resemble actual racing conditions, including drafting, side-by-side racing and passing.

“We believe the timing is right for a new qualifying format across our three national series,” Pemberton said. “This style of group qualifying has all the makings of being highly competitive and more engaging to our fans in the stands and those watching on television and online. For the drivers and teams, we believe this new qualifying will fuel even greater competition leading into the events. Additionally, it provides our tracks, broadcasters and other key partners with a greater opportunity to develop more entertaining content for our race weekends.”

At Phoenix and other shorter tracks, qualifying will take place in a two-stage process. The first qualifying elimination round will be 30 minutes in duration and includes all cars (or trucks). The 12 cars that post the fastest single lap time from the first qualifying round will advance to the second and final round, while the remainder of the field will be set based on their speeds posted during that 30-minute period, from fastest to slowest.

Following a 10-minute break in which teams may make minor changes such as adding oil or fuel, but may not open the hood or jack up the vehicle, the top 12 cars will head back onto the track for a 10-minute dash for the pole. The fastest single lap times during that session will determine the starting order from first through 12th.

Sperber called the new qualifying setup “tremendous” for race fans in Arizona.

“I think the new format will really deliver a tremendous value to our fans,” Sperber said. “We’ll be the first track to implement the new group qualifying format, which will really improve the overall experience for our fans, particularly our season-ticket holders and other fans attending our Friday race.”

With the start of its golden anniversary season on the horizon, Phoenix International Raceway’s future looks brighter than ever.

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