Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L), with Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Winning should be what NASCAR racing is all about.
But for some reason this season the championship point system seems to have gotten the racing all out of kilter.
The long, painfully long and uneventful, stretches of green flag racing have made some events this spring simply boring, to be blunt.
So the debate about how to fix the 'boring' racing on the stock car circuit has jumped into high gear, as NASCAR men are cranking up for their annual summer criss-cross-the-country swing, beginning here with Sunday's 400 – the 'FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.'
Drivers have been complaining that the points system penalizes them too much for bad finishes and not enough for wins, and they say that's a major reason for the less-than-thrilling action this season.
Of course that's long been a complaint about the point system, and a very valid one, yes. Even NASCAR boss Brian France acknowledged some of that when he added some points for victories.
But the playoff system itself may be at the root of the problem.
Under the long-standing 'Bob Latford' scoring system, used for some 30 years (including all seven Dale Earnhardt championships, all six Junior Johnson championships, all four Jeff Gordon championships, and three Richard Petty championships), points were scored throughout the entire season.
That worked well enough, it seemed, with most title races tight coming into the final few races of the season, sometime incredibly tight.
However Matt Kenseth's 'runaway' title run in 2003, and then-looming TV contract negotiations with NBC over its fall part of the NASCAR schedule, led to the creation of the 'chase' format, with 10 drivers making a playoff 'cut,' based on their points over the year's first 26 races.
Now, though, with everyone in the sport having digested both Tony Stewart's championship charge last fall after a miserable regular season and Jimmie Johnson's chase focus working so successfully, the regular season dynamic appears to have changed somehow.
First, this year there are at least 15 drivers and teams who have a very legitimate shot to win the Sprint Cup championship, if they can make the playoffs. Another five could very well make the playoff cut.
That means some 20 drivers battling for the 12 playoff spots. Ten spots go to the top-10 in the standings following the Sept. 8th Richmond 400; two 'wild card' spots go to the two other winningest drivers who are in the top-20.
And as Stewart showed last season, the way a team performs during the 26-race regular season, from February through September, has little bearing on who might win the title.
…if they can make the chase.
And with sponsorships so tight – even mega-team owners Jack Roush and Richard Childress have been forced to cut back to three teams – drivers, even very good drivers, are worried about making too many mistakes and possibly losing their rides.
Plus, with sponsorships so tight, the pressure to make the playoffs is that much more intense, as a sponsorship bargaining point.
Part of the bottom line: there have been 40 fewer cautions to this point in the season than last year. That means 40 fewer double-file restarts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. puts it all this way: "The penalty for finishing in the back is a lot worse…and harder to overcome.
"….aside from the fact that you lose a lot of respect from your peers when you make a lot of dumb mistakes and cause a lot of crashes. So guys don't do that anymore.
"Rides are harder to come by, so foolishness on the race track is sort of a thing of the past, because of that.
"Guys can't go out there and make costly errors, the way the environment is now, as far as rides, and trying to keep a ride.
"You've got to keep your car clean and bring it home in one piece. You can't go out there and cost a lot of money for your owners, and other people as well.
"If you tear up a lot of stuff, that kind of gets you sent on out of the sport pretty quick."
"There seems to be less debris on the track this year," Earnhardt says. "The last couple of years there was a lot more debris flying around the track.
That's part of it.
"Guys have always points raced; smart drivers have. Ever since I was a little kid people considered winning the championship the ultimate goal, and to win the championship you get the most points every week.
"A lot of it I don't think has really changed."
However Earnhardt says a key factor is "the penalty for when you have a bad finish.
"If you blow up a motor, or get in an accident early in the race, you only get one point or a half dozen points at best. The percentage, compared to the old system, the penalty for finishing in the back is a lot worse and harder to overcome.
"Points racing has been around for a while, but the penalty for finishing last, verses the old system, is a lot tougher than it was.
"Everybody is not really settling for 2nd-place points or 3rd-place points, and not racing hard for the win; you're just trying, for the majority of the race, to not wreck yourself into a 30th or 35th-place finish.
"Everybody kind of goes for it at the end, and runs pretty hard, like we always have.
"But everybody is a lot more careful to not being the first guy out of the race, or making a mistake that ends the day pretty early."
Drivers, perhaps naturally, are a bit defensive about fans' gripes that the action isn't hot enough.
"There is no point system that NASCAR could devise that would have us drivers saying 'Hey, let's just wreck the hell out of each other,'" Carl Edwards says, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
And Jimmie Johnson says "I am surprised we don't have more cautions. From my perspective in the driver's seat, when I look around and watch my competitors, we are crossed up, we are slapping the fence, there is hard racing, there is side-by-side racing.
"I don't know where the cautions have gone. I'm glad I'm not a part of them. It's fine if it's someone else, but when it's you or your teammates you don't really dig that.
"I don't have the answer.
"I don't know where it went.
"People may think we are being conservative and racing for points…but that's been the nature of our sport forever."
Okay, now that there seems to be consensus that there is a big problem here, how about some possible solutions?
One easy fix would be to eliminate the wacky 'wave around' rule that is so confusing, and that gives the leader of the race clean air on restarts. That rule is an artificial device added to the sport supposedly to let fans see more easily just who the leader is -- and not be stuck somewhere in heavy traffic.
However giving the race leader 'clean air' like that gives the leader a major advantage over the rest of the field.
If NASCAR dropped that rule and went back to the long-established rules, the leader would at times have to fight his way through traffic to get back to the front…and thus provide for more exciting racing.
Most drivers of course would not like NASCAR to eliminate that 'wave around,' because it's such a valuable freebie.
However the 'wave around' has little to do with safety, as the 'lucky dog' does.
NASCAR is currently trying to take some downforce away from the cars, to make drivers work harder.
Jimmie Johnson understands the aero issues at stake.
"I'm not against it (addressing the aero issue), and I understand the position NASCAR is in -- that they don't want the leader to be in the ideal situation and have clean air and all the benefits that come with it," Johnson.
"If they can close that gap from first to 15th , it is just going to be a better show.
"(But) it's tough when we are the test pilots for all of this.
"I'm not against trying to fix it. (But) the lead car has the best situation, it doesn't matter what you do to the cars, or what shape they are.
"The racing in the '80's -- they didn't know about the aero-push, and we only had five cars on the lead lap.
"The lead car will always have the best air, and you can't get around that.
"If we can close that gap, I get it, I understand it, and I think it is better for the sport.
"The more difficult the cars are to drive -- especially the looser they are -- fits my driving style. And I'm all for that."
To which Matt Kenseth adds "the cars (now) are difficult to drive but they are more forgiving than the older cars to catch.
"When you do step over the edge and get it sideways, there is a lot of side-force that helps you catch the cars.
"It is a good thing, because it helps you not wreck as much. But I think that lends a little into having less accidents and less yellows.
"I think the racing is pretty good how it is right now. But I would be in favor of less side-force and less rear downforce -- not less front downforce, but less rear…and less aero-dependent. Work a little more on mechanical grip; I have always liked that better, when we could get our cars like that, rather than having them squashed to the race track so hard.
"But everyone is going to have a different idea on that. I've always liked some of the older rules, with smaller spoilers and less downforce."