- Bill Stephens
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The NHRA championship points system has changed little in the last 32 years -- until this week.
And there are big changes on the way in 2007.
On Wednesday, the NHRA announced that a playoff-style points system, called the "Countdown to the Championship," will be put into play next year, similar to NASCAR's current points structure that has proved to be so successful.
"The 'Countdown to the Championship' is an inclusive program whereby more competitors will have a chance to win an NHRA POWERade World Championship than ever before," said NHRA president Tom Compton. "This historic change in our championship point structure will add more excitement and drama to the entire season, and magnify the spotlight during the season's final six races, for our fans and the entire racing community."
In a nutshell, the racers in all four professional classes -- Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle -- will compete during the first 17 national events in what will be called the "Countdown to Eight." Then, at the 18th race, the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the top eight points-earners in each class will enter into a playoff-style tournament with its own dedicated points fund.
The next four races, dubbed the "Countdown to Four," will winnow down the title contenders to the top four in the Countdown standings. The final two races on the schedule, in Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif., comprise the "Countdown to One," where the four POWERade championships will ultimately be decided.
An extra layer of bonus money has also been added to the championship tournament, giving racers an even greater incentive to race hard all year and qualify for the new Countdown.
"Traditionally, prior to the final six races of the season, only a few teams still have had a shot at winning a POWERade World Championship," said Compton. "Under this new program, eight teams in each of the professional categories will have a legitimate chance to win."
There was a time when winning an NHRA championship was as simple as winning a single event -- the World Finals, which were held at five different venues before finding a permanent home in Pomona. Of course, in those early days, there was only a handful of national events, many racers competed out of their own pockets and the NHRA's prize money had yet to be bolstered by a series sponsor.
The NHRA adopted a seasonlong championship points structure in 1974 when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco became the series' title sponsor. Coca-Cola's POWERade brand sports drink become the primary marketing partner with the NHRA in 2001.
The most noticeable change over those 32 years occurred in 1995, when the number of points earned for round wins and national event victories was adjusted downward.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.