Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: NASCAR Turns to Mario Kart to Determine Sprint Cup Champion

With the dawn of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season just a few weeks away, NASCAR decided to change the rules – yet again – at the very last minute.

For the fourth time in less than 10 seasons, the format used to decide the champion has changed once more. There were rumblings of something happening regarding the ranking system used throughout last year, expanding the Chase field to 15, more points for winning, a wildcard entry (just like the NFL!), among a myriad of other subtle tweaks and changes. So at the 11th hour, in the midst of NASCAR Preseason Thunder media tour, NASCAR unveiled their new points system.

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Would be it be a return the Latford system that worked so well for 23 years and helped spur the sport on to unfathomable levels? Did the Chase finally go the way of the “wing” and the “splitter” and every other ill-conceived idea of the past eight years?

Oh no. The new points system to determine who is the champion of the most prestigious racing series in the Western Hemisphere will be the same one used to determine the winner in Nintendo’s Mario Kart.

What, RC Pro-Am, Rad Racer and Ivan Stewart’s Off-Road Challenge didn’t want any of that?

Under the “new and improved system” the winner will receive 43 points, 42 for second, and on down to one point for finishing dead last in 43rd. The winner receives a three-point bonus for winning and an additional point for leading a lap and another for the most laps lead. In Mario Kart, the winner gets 10 points, second receives eight, third receives six, followed by four, three, two and 0. If you figure there are four times as many cars in the race, it evens out close enough.

For NASCAR as a whole to have made so many positive changes last season – from ditching the wing to the second coming of the muscle car to Nationwide and starting the races at a reasonable hour – this has completely spent all of the goodwill capital that had been built up in the eyes of many longtime fans who may have been starting to been drawn back in – even if the same guy who had won the title for the last four years was on his way to a fifth title less than 20 laps into the season finale.

All one needs to do is read the reactions to the story on any number of racing websites, blogs, sports pages, you name it. From the sounds of things, this latest attempt to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the beatified “casual fan” has all the redeeming qualities of a case of genital herpes, but at least does not require a prescription – it only requires 36 weekends of your life.

At least the National Guard pays and gives you an M-16 and a Beretta M9 for your troubles of such a commitment.

While I never thought the traditional Latford system needed revising, the reasons being given for the change are weak at best. The common thread that shows up in nearly all of the responses and comments to the new system is, “it is easier to understand!” Really? That’s funny because I never found the old one too difficult, even when I really started paying attention to NASCAR, the points and the championship when I was 10 years old thumbing through the weekly racing issue, Southern MotoRacing.

Pretty simple from what I could see: 175 points for a win, five bonus points for leading a lap, five more for leading the most laps. The points decreased five points through sixth, four points through 11th place and by three down to 43rd. That worked fine even through the first few years of the Chase, where five points for winning was tacked on a couple of times, to where 195 became the maximum points scored. Fair enough, and a boon to those who had wished that winning would mean more – yet still maintained the key being consistency.

The Chase itself is the real culprit here. It has been roundly rejected by diehards and channel flippers alike. Resetting the points midseason apparently isn’t a problem, so naturally, scrapping the system every few years when the ratings level out or don’t beat the NFL in the fall has become the knee-jerk reaction.

Why this is, I have no clue. Might there be something the network or Sprint contracts that demands some sort of a playoff format be used to try and go up against the National Football League (which by the way produced eight of the top-10 highest-rated primetime television shows in 2010)?

While that part of it is uncertain, what is without question is changing your method of determining a champion is not what engenders respect among the stick-and-ball sports fans that seem to be the constant target of the NASCAR brain trust. Never mind that “our” way of doing things is what converted so many to begin with during the 1990s and early 2000s. With all due respect to Dale Earnhardt Sr., the sport continued to grow after his passing and did not really level out and decline until after the Chase become a part of the racing landscape and lexicon.

I guess if there is any consolation, it is that after 26 weeks, the points get reset and the championship Chase begins for the top 10 – with two more thrown in for good measure that won the most races, but didn’t make it past 11th in points and finished at least in the top 20.

The top 10 will be seeded by wins, with each win worth three points, except for the 11th and 12th place wildcard drivers, who will not receive bonus points. Those in contention for the championship will be reset to 2,000 points and given three bonus points for winning. Why? Because it’s easier to understand, follow and figure out, particularly for fans flipping over from an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon.

To quote YouTube hero Antoine Dodson, “Waaelll, obviously….”

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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