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Has NASCAR's championship chase format hurt 'regular season' play?

Has NASCAR's championship chase format hurt 'regular season' play?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L), with Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   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."

   Fewer cautions?
   "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."



Bias Ply Tires Too?

Going for the trophy used to be what racing was all about. It paid the most, and you didn\'t get one for finishing second.

Since Reynolds came along and pumped all of the money into the points system, that\'s been focus of NASCAR and the media. Winning races is just a sideshow now, and the famous \"it was a good points day\" line is infamous among drivers now.

How many times under the old points system was the end of the year really exciting? I can think of three. Allison held off Darrell Waltrip to win it one year, Rusty beat Earnhardt in 1989, and the most exciting was Kulwicki beating out Elliot and Davey Allison in 1992.

Nothing all that exciting to my recollection in any other season using the antique points system.

There\'s a lot of revisionist history about the good ole days of racing. There were even less cars that were competitive, and the races were even more boring with sometimes a single-digit number of cars on the lead lap at the end.


As for The Chase, it\'s not great but it\'s better than the old point system. As for somebody like Stewart squeeking in The Chase and then winning it, we are seeing that more and more in all sports now. The Cardinals make the playoffs on the last day of the season last year and then go on to win the World Series. The Giants and Packers have both won the Super Bowl the last two seasons as a #6 seed.

I don\'t see a problem with somebody barely getting in, then getting hot, then winning it. That\'s exciting unless you\'re pulling specifically for someone else.

Could it be that Junior fans think that the only way he\'s going to win a Cup is to go back to the old point system? I wouldn\'t hold my breath on either one happening.


If NASCAR really wants to make a good show, then go to more of a format that the World of Outlaws uses. Heat races and a Last Chance race to get in the show, and a shorter feature where there is no time to \"ride\". I would rather see that format than another long boring race at Michigan, California, Kansas, Chicago, or New Hampshire.

Bias Ply Tires Might Help, Actually

Don't laugh - 20 years and radial tires have never gotten more raceable. Short track series such as the NASCAR Modified Tour still run bias plies and they have less difficulty with passing than radial-shod cars.

Reynolds' backing of the points fund didn't detract from going for the win - the issue was getting more teams to run all the races instead of doing what the Woods and David Pearson did in running only big-money races - until in the 1980s the Latford Point System began seeing running points battles in which the contenders weren't winning as many races as others - the Waltrip-Allison battles of 1981-2 first brought the points racing issue to attention because of the huge gap in wins between Waltrip's 12-win seasons and the five- and eight-win seasons of Allison yet the points didn't reflect it - people dismissed Waltrip's gripe for more points for the win because Waltrip ran his mouth all the time. Then the sport saw the Labonte-Gant season of 1984 and the huge mismatch of Bill Elliott and Waltrip in 1985.

There had been suspenseful points battles in the 1979-85 period, and when the sport saw the Wallace-Elliott-Earnhardt battles of 1988-9 the consensus was the points system worked. The 1992 season is when the points racing ethos began to become prominent, but this got overlooked because everyone got caught up in the Dixie 500 and only the second ever time the points lead changed hands in the final race (1979 was the first).

There's an element of revisionist history about the past, but the nostalgia has legitimacy to it. The points system wasn't so much broke as it needed substantial additions - a huge points bonus for the win and a huge bonus for most laps led. The problem became Brian France and his absurd love of "Game 7 Moments" even though they're not applicable to racing. The Chase format manifestly is NOT better than the old format, and you forget that racing isn't like other sports in applying the analogy of the Packers and Giants Superbowl titles as low-ranked wildcard teams. The Chase artificially locks out 4/5ths of the field from ANY top-ten points contention and locks in teams with no other chance at title contention because entering the playoffs they are realistically too far back to make any run - Tony Stewart would have lost the title under the old format, and the fact he had to win five of ten races just to force a points tie makes further nonsense of the format. That kind of "excitement" doesn't work in racing.

As for making a good race, the World Of Outlaws format is strictly bush league.

Bush League?

It's not bush league, Mike. If you were like all of the other mention-the-sponsor-every-time TV announcers, it's Busch League. While I think the WOO format could be made better if used in NASCAR, heat races and a shorter feature would be preferred by me over a 4-hour snoozer.
Name me a season under the old format where with 10 races left that 4/5th's of the field wasn't out of contention? Who cares if they went from 16th to 10th in the points in those last 10 races, or even better from 12th to 5th. The bottom line is that under the old points system, it was usually down to 2-3 cars with 10 races left and nobody else mattered. I think it's funny that people gripe about The Chase and there being only 12 cars on the track that "matter" during those 10 races, when under the old points format there were only 3-4 cars that "mattered" in the last 10 races. Sure The Chase is NASCAR trying to create excitement, but that's because there wasn't a whole lot to be had at the end of most seasons under the old system. I think part of the reason Jimmie Johnson has had so much success under this format is because the rest of the teams haven't really accepted it and don't have a real strategy for the "new" format".
At least we agree on using bias ply tires, Mike. :)

Points Format & WoO format

Under the old format the top 10 was still not settled; drivers outside the top ten still had a chance at breaking in during the final ten weeks; this is reflected in contrasting the Chase points battles with those same seasons as scored under a non-Chase format; we see numerous situations of drivers outside the top 10-12 making the top 10 under a non-Chase format. And why should the sport assume that because it had never happened before a driver over 400 points out of the lead with ten races to go (one of the premises that went into the original Chase format) would not pull off a miracle rally?

Artificially locking 4/5ths of the field out of ANY top 10 points contention is wrong. Period. "Who cares if they went from 16th to 10th or 12th to 5th?" Some would; the bottom line remains they would be able to move in the points; the Chase format artificially locks them out.

NASCAR went about it totally wrong - and they did it wrong because Brian France lacks the racing IQ to get it. All NASCAR had to do was up the bonus for race winners and up the bonus for most laps led to make winning and leading pivotal in the points - to where one win or one race with most laps led erases all the points damage of two or more poor finishes. The other teams haven't accepted the new format and don't have a strategy for it - why should they? There's no legitimacy to the Chase format.

As for the WoO format - superspeedway races are NOT short track shows. Heats and a feature would drag it longer than the "4-hour snoozer" you lament. I go to Stafford, CT, Lee, NH, Thompson, CT when I can and many a night lasted over four hours (they start heats before 7 PM) between heats and the feature. Cup races are supposed to be 500-mile semi-marathons.

On bias ply tires - thanks.

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This over-doing the points promotion started with nascar trying to reward then sponsor RJ Reynolds.

Yea...it\'s nice to be known as a champion...but winning races should still get the most attention. "Proving you are THE MAN tonight is what Saturday night racing used to be about...and that mentality came with drivers to the major leagues of racing.

Now...from the beginning...it's drivers with a lot of backing getting "seat time" then moving on to the next level whether they are successful or not.

The worst case of point mentality I have ever heard was a few years back at Caraway Speedway. The pole winner in a limited sportsman race got crowded on the first lap and lost a few positions (he was driving a really high dollar car). After the race he told the track announcer he could have raced harder but was looking at the "big picture".

In Saturday night racing there is not a big picture. To be the MAN...you have to win the darn race!!

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