Prior to the 2004 season, NASCAR chairman Brian France announced a new playoff system in which the top 10 drivers in the points standings after 26 races would advance into a separate point bracket and duke it out of the championship over the final 10 races. The new format would be called "The Chase for the Championship." Dale Jr. had won four races leading into the inaugural Chase, starting with the 2004 Daytona 500 and continuing through races at Atlanta, Richmond and Bristol. Junior started the 2004 Chase off strong with a third-place finish at New Hampshire. He followed up with a ninth-place finish at Dover and a win at Talladega, putting him in second place and only 12 points behind Kurt Busch. After a ninth at Kansas and third at Charlotte he was still in second place at the Chase halfway point, just 24 points behind Busch. A pair of wrecks and consecutive 33rd-place finishes at Martinsville and Atlanta, respectively, proved to be the undoing for Junior's title run. It knocked him back to fifth with three races to go, leaving a difficult 98-point deficit to the leader. Junior answered the following week with his sixth win of the season at Phoenix. The victory cut his deficit by more than half to -47 and helped him regain two spots lost the previous week. But an 11th at Darlington and 23rd in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami sent Junior into the off-season with a fifth-place finish in the inaugural Chase for the Championship. The season still proved to be Dale Jr.'s best, as he ended with six wins, 16 top fives, and 21 top-10s. He led a career-best 1,131 laps and was awarded nearly $9 million in prize earnings.