Another sign of spring, the new NASCAR season is under way, and 2014 brings with it a new series point system, one that puts the ultimate priority on finishing first.
Part "March Madness" and part "Survivor," the revised tally method is designed to create more excitement week in and week out, as well as a one-race championship final at the end of the year.
Through the first 26 races of the campaign, drivers will battle for the first 15 slots in the expanded Chase bracket. While points will still be counted, those 15 coveted places will be determined by number of wins. If the points leader does not have a win, that driver gets the 16th spot in the bracket.
From there, a series of three-race playoff rounds begins where drivers advance by virtue of wins, from the Challenger Round of 16 to the Contender Round of 12, then the Eliminator Round of 8, and then the remaining four move on to the Sprint Cup Championship, a one-race first-to-the-finish final at Homestead.
According to NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, the new system is designed to create more exciting races throughout the year, more passing and more opportunities for drivers to get into the playoffs.
One consistent driver who may finish near the front week in and week out will still have the safety net of the point system, including credit for laps led. At the same time, those drivers who have suffered some tough luck through the first two weeks can still make the Chase with race wins, no matter how low in the point standings they may be.
Last-lap gambles can pay off with trips not only to victory lane, but into the Chase bracket, and the best-of-the-best are challenged to perform in the key end-of-the-year races, not just to finish or to place, but to take the checkered flag.
NASCAR officials credit the new playoff format with simplifying the scoring for casual fans, but also for injecting new energy into the industry.
Like anything new, we'll have to wait and see the various "what if" scenarios that could develop. But just like the NCAA basketball brackets so many follow this time of year, NASCAR'S new system seems like an interesting and exciting way to determine the next cup champion.
Daytona champion Dale Earnhardt Junior seems to be a virtual lock for a playoff spot, a boost for the largest throng of fans in the sport. Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick picked up his first win with his new team, Stewart-Haas, seemingly securing his playoff position as well.
Undoubtedly, multiple-race victors will rise over the next few months, along with some potential surprise qualifiers. But that is the fun of a true playoff system - anyone and everyone has a shot.
The winds of change are always blowing through the NASCAR garages, and this year's shake-up may provide some of the most thrilling racing we've seen in years. Let's buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.