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Side by Side: Does the NASCAR Points System Need an Overhaul?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side by Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Seven races into the season, Jeff Gordon already holds a lead in the points so large, all he needs to do is start the race at Phoenix to maintain it no matter where he finishes. But even with such a large cushion, he wouldn’t even be the points leader in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Is this a sign our points system needs a major overhaul? Or should we keep things the way they are?

It’s Time for a Change

I used to be in love with the NASCAR points system. Even when driver after driver ran away with the championship prior to the Chase, I thought it was the best way to encourage competitive, side-by-side racing throughout the 43-car field.

But six years into our “new” championship system, I have to take a deep breath, shed a tear and state the obvious… it’s no longer working.

In fact, there’s so much wrong with the points system today I don’t even know where to begin. Oh, well… I guess it’s logical to start at the top. As I write this piece, Gordon heads into Phoenix with a 162-point lead on the rest of the competition. That lead is so large, even if Gordon finishes 43rd and Jimmie Johnson wins Saturday night – leading the most laps in the process – it’s Gordon who will still emerge ahead of the pack.

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Jeff Gordon a Legend Amongst Us

Now, there’s no question Gordon is well deserving of his place in the standings. During the 2009 season, he’s had no finishes lower than 13th while winning once and placing second twice more. Leading the series in a number of statistical categories, Gordon has by and large been the class of the field in 2009.

So if that’s the case, why is Gordon the third seed in the playoffs?

That’s right; if the season ended today, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth‘s two wins would leave Gordon 10 points behind them in third place. Despite a dominating regular season, that would leave the four-time champ stripped of the equivalent of home-field advantage. Everything he worked for and accomplished during the regular season would suddenly mean nothing. And how fair is that? It’s like taking a 15-1 football team that won their division by three games and making them a wild card selection in the playoffs. The whole thing just doesn’t work.

But the problems for not rewarding the regular season points leader run far deeper. To qualify for the playoffs, Gordon need only finish 12th or better. It doesn’t matter if he’s fifth or seventh… he’ll still be seeded based on his win total. And while Gordon would love to win every race, he’s not going to have a winning car every weekend.

Follow me for a moment on this. Let’s say Gordon has a fourth-place car, it’s in the middle of the summer and he’s comfortably ahead in the standings, assured of a spot in the playoffs. What incentive would he have to go side-by-side for third late in the race? What’s that going to get him? At best, he has the “pride” of getting third. At worst, he has a wrecked racecar the team wants to use at a later date. What’s Gordon going to do?

You know the answer, because you’ve heard it from countless drivers many times before. “We had a good car, but just didn’t have enough to win,” says Mister X after letting the fans watch him run single file like he’s on a highway drive. “We just needed a good points day, so I settled for fourth.”

I’ll be honest; in a way, I don’t blame drivers for doing that based on the way this system is set up. If there’s no incentive to take risk, drivers are not going to take the risk. After all, money is not an issue for them anymore (even the worst-paid drivers are making six figures) and the scrutiny they take for ruffling feathers from sponsors, team owners and the media don’t exactly encourage them to step out of line. Risk is born out of desperation, and there’s nothing for these drivers to feel desperate about under this system.

But you’d think the backmarkers would at least keep it interesting, right? Well, that’s not exactly true. For teams struggling to stay in the Top 35, that ugly philosophy of “risk versus reward” again comes into play. For a team running 27th heading towards the finish, what incentive do they have to place 26th when an aggressive move leaves them wrecked, 40th and forced to qualify on speed the following week due to that loss of points?

It has been well documented by all sides on how falling out of the Top 35 can absolutely kill a season. So, why are you going to risk aggression when playing it safe allows you to safely time into the field next week, avoiding the awkward confrontations with everyone that supports you that would ensue from making a mistake?

You see where I’m going with this one. The points system on both ends – the Chase and Top 35 – rewards conservatism, not aggression. And NASCAR fans don’t come to watch drivers play it safe; otherwise, they might as well sit on the hill of their local hometown and watch cars drive single file down their local highway. That’s something they can do for free… and more and more, people are choosing to do that or another form of entertainment on their Sunday.

It’s important to pay attention to that fan phenomenon, because it’s so much easier to fall off the top of the mountain than it is to climb up it. For the sport to stay on top of that mountain, they need drivers back to a mode where they’re pushing themselves on the race track to get every position they can every lap of the race. They need a race where risk-taking is a necessity, not a luxury, where the Top-35 rule is eliminated to put everyone on a level playing field and give the have nots the ability to give 110%.

And most importantly, they need a system where the regular-season champion gets rewarded with the number one seed in the playoffs, because that’s the basic tenet of pretty much any other sport in America.

The writing’s on the wall, NASCAR. The time for change is close at hand and the reasons for doing so are becoming impossible to ignore. – Tom Bowles

Points System Fine As Is

The issue has been raised in recent weeks if the NASCAR points system needs an overhaul of some sort. After all, points leader Gordon has 162-point lead over second-place Johnson heading into Phoenix. Gordon only needs to start the race and he will still be the points leader following the race, regardless of how Johnson or third-place driver Kurt Busch perform. Some say, “See, this proves that the points system in NASCAR is not working as it should!”

I say, “Big deal.”

Much like how talk of banning assault weapons – or any firearms for that matter – comes up every few years, so does the notion that NASCAR’s points system needs to be scrapped in favor of something different. Ironic since our current system of government and way of life is apparently being scrapped for a more European (Eastern… that is… late ’70s…) model, the talk lately has focused on a Formula 1-style points system, as seen below.

In that great bastion of automotive democracy which surely promotes equal time for all parties within the FIA, there was talk of bumping up race winning points to 12 points for this season, however that has been pushed back until 2010. As you can see how it stands now, points are paid through eighth place, which when considering the stakes involved, would probably make for a pretty sparse field coming to the checkered flag at Talladega or Daytona.

1st place: 10 points
2nd place: 8 points
3rd place: 6 points
4th place: 5 points
5th place: 4 points
6th place: 3 points
7th place: 2 points
8th place: 1 point

How in a sport where there is great racing throughout the field, would a points system like this promote anything but follow-the-leader/courtesy run amok style of racing?

First of all, the sheer numbers of this system don’t work. In F1, you have a field that is half the size of a NASCAR grid. The races are also 90 minutes long, not three and a half hours or 500 miles in length. Some of the greatest championships in history (Benny Parsons in 1973 for example) were won by sheer doggedness and determination, and just keeping the car on the track to score a few measly points that in the end could make the difference between being a champion, and teetering on the brink of emotional collapse for three months.

Having a “good points day” could mean riding around with the front clip removed from the car and no hood at Bristol to a 28th-place finish after getting caught up in a wreck and tossed around like a pinball, not finishing eighth and scoring a point.

I fail to see how any of this would make for better racing or a closer championship fight. Come to think of it, why do we constantly have to fiddle with things? Why can’t we just leave well enough alone and let things shake out as they will? Do we really need to have an eight-point spread between first and second every weekend? Does anybody even pay attention to the points until the middle of summer?

You do realize that none of this is remotely relevant for another five months, right? The new seeding system pretty much takes your regular season consistently and completely marginalizes it anyway. You could be 400 points out of first at race number 25, but as of race number 26, you’d be seeded first because you won the most races.

Going out on a limb here, I’m also guessing the sponsors would probably not be so keen on scoring a top 10, yet acquiring as many points as one of the much maligned start-and-park competitors.

Does that seem at all fair? What about the four races a team blew motors or the driver backed it into the wall? A premium should be put on winning, but not at the expense of consistency and excellence on the track and in the pits. This is a team sport after all – since we are constantly reminded of this every broadcast. They do go to great lengths to draw analogies from stick-and-ball sports for us to follow and glean our own conclusions from.

Let’s be honest; if you really want to fix what’s wrong with the current points system, we all know what would work: get rid of the Chase. It’s been five years now, and nobody cares. The name of it changes every couple of years now anyway, so you aren’t building any sort of brand or nostalgic trophy that will be revered for ages to come. Just because it’s on TV in the fall does not mean it will outdraw the NFL, no matter how close the points may be.

The current points system is working fine because it still harkens back to the previous Latford points system, which worked so well for nearly 30 years and gave us some of the most memorable moments in racing history. If NASCAR was going to do anything with it, a minor tweak is all that would have been needed. Give a 15-point bonus for winning, five points for winning the pole and maybe a couple of extra points to those finishing in the top five.

That way, wins, speed and consistency are all recognized and rewarded. And we can stop talking about this every time somebody accumulates a points lead through hard work, success and by simply being better than the other teams they are competing against.

Imagine that. Only in America. – Vito Pugliese

About the author

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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