The NASCAR points system has been a topic of debate since its creation nearly 30 years ago. In 1975, NASCAR adopted Bob Latford's system that awarded the race winner 175 points and the second place finisher 170 points. Points were awarded on a descending basis throughout the remainder of the starting field. In 2003, the governing began floating ideas of revamping the points system. A playoff system seems to be the idea that is being looked at the most. However, there are other ways to revamp the points system without reducing the sport into a "made for TV" entertainment show in October and November.
There have been numerous occasions when changes to the points system were brought up, but-- as is often the case-- NASCAR kept its "if it aint broke, don't fix it" mentality. Things changed in 2001 when a new television worth billions of dollars was signed. The FOX Network and NBC Sports controlled the broadcast of all 36 races, as well as the three exhibition events. Jeff Gordon clinched the 2001 championship in advance of the final race of the season. In 2002, Tony Stewart needed only a mid-pack finish to lock up the title. Matt Kenseth coasted to the 2003 championship with relative ease clinching his first title in the penultimate race of the season. NBC has seen a decline in its television ratings later in the season. This can be attributed to racing going head-to-head with NFL football on Sunday afternoons. Though it can also be attributed to a championship race that is usually a foregone conclusion.
In November 2003, the idea of a ten-race playoff was floated. After the 26th race of the season, the top-ten in the standings would be "locked in" and would start the 27th race on equal ground. The top-ten driver with the most points in the final ten races would be crowned series champion. The problem is that teams that find late-season chemistry would be shut down. In 2002, Kurt Busch was 12th in points after the 26th race. In the final ten races he scored more points than any other driver besides Tony Stewart (the eventual champion) and vaulted up to third in the final standings. However, in NASCAR's proposed playoff format, Busch would not be eligible to win the championship. Nor would he even be eligible to gain entry in the top-ten.
The playoff system is also flawed in that it discounts races before the 27th event of the season. Bob Latford's system placed the same amount of importance on every race. The goal was to increase the number of regular competitors in the sport on a week-to-week basis. In 2003 there were more than 40 full-time teams. Perhaps the Latford system has outworn its usefulness. But it did place equal value on all 36 events. To win the championship, a driver had to prove their prowess on superspeedways, short tracks, and road courses. Since the playoff format only covers the final ten races, a number of tracks on the schedule lose value in terms of the championship. Daytona, Las Vegas, Bristol, Richmond, Michigan, Pocono, Indianapolis, and the road courses are just some of the tracks whose season is completed in advance of the 27th race. Whereas a bad summer stretch could eliminate a driver from title contention in the past (see Jeff Gordon: summer 2003), the playoff system would allow Gordon to start from scratch and contend for the title as long as he remains in the top-ten in the points standings.
And what becomes of the points leader after the 26th race? Does that driver get a bonus of any kind for leading the points going into the playoff races? A driver should be rewarded in some way for holding the first place position in points entering any kind of playoff arrangement. Maybe the pole position for the final races would be fair. However, that alters the true competition aspect of the sport that has made stock car racing the number one spectator sport in the United States. Artificial inducements pull the sport more into the entertainment world, and further away from the "legitimate" sports world. How soon before a disgruntled driver comes into victory lane and hits the race winner over the head with a steel chair in a late-season ratings bonanza? Racing shouldn't be about a built in dramatic storyline; but rather about the on-track competition first and foremost.
In a playoff system, how will team cars outside of the top-ten affect the outcome? For example, if Matt Kenseth has qualified for the playoff but Greg Biffle has not, would Biffle take extreme measures to keep Kenseth's challengers behind him on the track late in the race? Will drivers take certain liberties knowing the tightness of a playoff race? Will the TV networks devote a fair amount of air time to a race winner in the final ten events if that driver is not among the top-ten in the playoff format? Quite frankly, the playoff format would create "made for TV" drama. It would help NBC justify its billion dollar investment. But it could alienate NASCAR's loyal and devoted fan base. When you start altering the competition for entertainment value, the true context of "sport" can be lost.
The Latford system rewards consistency. In 1985, Bill Elliott won 11 races. Darrell Waltrip won just three races but claimed the championship as Elliott faltered in the final weeks of the season. The same scenario played itself out in 1992 when Elliott won 10 races but lost the championship to Alan Kulwicki who was more consistent down the stretch. Kulwicki only won two races in 1992, but it was his week-to-week consistency that decided the title. In 1996, Jeff Gordon visited victory lane ten times. However, his teammate Terry Labonte claimed the championship with a string of consistent finishes as Gordon struggled through the final six weeks of the season. Labonte won just two races that season. The loudest criticism came in 2003 when Ryan Newman won 8 races but finished a distant sixth in the points standings. Matt Kenseth, with one victory, claimed the title with a string of consistent finishes. He had built up a lead of more than 400 points at one point. Though Kenseth struggled in the final weeks of the season and won the title by 90 points.
It is obvious that the Latford system is in need of changes. The race winner deserves more than just five more points than the second place finisher. Perhaps increasing the race winner's total to 250 points would be fair. A driver could rebound from a DNF more quickly by winning the following race. The system would still reward consistency, but the emphasis would be placed on winning the event.
In addition, NASCAR has also discussed the idea of having the drivers beyond 30th place receive the same amount of points. In theory this would keep drivers from returning to the track in wrecked cars in the hopes of scoring more points. However, the proposed system is flawed. To award the same amount of points from a specific position, such as 30th, the race conditions must be taken into consideration. It is not uncommon at the road courses to have more than 30 cars on the lead lap. Michigan and Talladega have also seen races where nearly the entire field is within two laps of the winner at the checkered flag.
A better system for awarding points to the rear of the field is as follows. Make the garage area the "point of no return" during the race. If a driver needs to pull behind the wall for any reason, the car cannot return to the race. The driver behind the wall would receive three less points than the last car no more than five laps down at the end of the race.
In addition, due to the 43-car field, late race traffic is always a hindrance. The reason why most fans list the finish at Darlington in 2003 between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch as their favorite race of the season is because the drivers battled it out in the closing laps without lapped traffic playing a factor in the outcome. The question should then be asked, should drivers more than one lap down be forced to park their cars in the final three laps of a race? Their positions would be "locked in" at that point and the track would be less congested. It might not mean too much at a track like Michigan, but at a track like Bristol it could mean the difference between Rusty Wallace having two more career wins and Jeff Gordon having two less career wins.
In March 2001, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon were battling for the victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. On the final lap, the pair came off turn four side-by-side. Brett Bodine, running four laps down at a reduced rate of speed, was in the low groove. Bodine's car forced Gordon to alter his line slightly as he came off the corner. Harvick inched ahead of Gordon at the finish line to score his first career win. Did Bodine's lapped car alter the outcome of that race? Perhaps. Which is why his lapped car shouldn't have been on the track in that situation. That being said, it wasn't Brett Bodine's fault. He needed to be out there in order to pick up as many points as he could. Besides, being on camera when the winner took the checkered flag created some extra TV time for his sponsor. In that instance, the fault lies in the Latford points system.
Another way to increase competition would be a tilted points system. For example, a race victory in October or November would be worth more points than a victory in March or April. It would make the final ten races of the season worth significantly more than the first ten races of the season. Though I tend to think the FOX Network might not be too fond of that kind of a plan. Another suggestion is to make the "major events" worth more points. A victory in the Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400 would be worth significantly more points than a victory at Watkins Glen or Loudon. However, the drawback of that kind of a system is that it would allow a driver to have a "mulligan" on certain tracks where they might not be as strong if the points are less. The road course races have been dominated by Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Robby Gordon in recent years. Placing less emphasis on those races would obviously change the dynamics of the championship race. Then again, a playoff format would place less emphasis on the first 26 races of the season.
Maybe winning a championship based on week-to-week consistency is a thing of the past.
The emphasis has seemingly shifted to winning--- and doing so late in the racing season. For
better or worse, that seems to be the road that Brian France has put NASCAR on. Only time will
tell whether it's Nextel's yellow and black brick road, or the road to oblivion and irrelevance.
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