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CHARLOTTE — NASCAR has a new way to determine its champion.

The most popular form of motor sports in the United States announced a dramatic overhaul of its playoff format on Thursday, creating a championship race for the first time in its history.

Previously, the Chase for the Sprint Cup was a 10-race playoff. The top 12 drivers — or an unprecedented 13 drivers in 2013 — in the 26-race regular season had their point totals reset and whoever collected the most points over 10 weeks won the championship.

But beginning this year, that will all change.

Sixteen drivers will now make the field based on whether or not they've won a race — not their point totals (points will be used to fill out the field if 16 different drivers don't win). The drivers will be determined after the regular-season finale, Sept. 6 at Richmond International Speedway.

Then the field will be whittled down via a series of eliminations — a NASCAR first. After every three Chase races, four drivers will be cut.

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.

That will leave four drivers still eligible for the championship during the Nov. 16 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Their point totals will be reset, and whoever finishes highest among the four title-eligible drivers is NASCAR's new champion.

Another wrinkle: In another attempt to emphasize winning, any driver who wins a Chase race will automatically advance to the next round. If a driver has trouble in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, for example, a win in either of the next two races would still earn a spot in Round 2.

The Chase was already a major departure from how NASCAR decided the champion for most of its history. Until the Chase was implemented in 2004, the champion was the driver who collected the most points over an entire season (there was no reset or playoff).

NASCAR tweaked the format in 2007, when the field expanded from 10 to 12 drivers, and in 2011, when the final two Chase spots were changed to wild cards.

Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck

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