One of the biggest knocks on both the old — and now especially the new — points system is that winning is not rewarded enough. Relentless consistency trumps momentary flashes of brilliance, or so they say; it’s better to finish relatively well each week than it is to take the “Ricky Bobby” style win or bust approach. In a sport like auto racing, that just seems like a real shame. How can winning not take pole position, if you’ll pardon the mixed sporting reference?
The simple truth is that it’s an issue that has plagued NASCAR for some time. Most commentators and fans would agree that the Chase format was only dreamt up because of the way the original robot man, Matt Kenseth, ground his way to the 2003 Championship with just a solitary win and remarkably consistent 25 top-10 runs in 36 attempts. The much ballyhooed “Chase for the Cup” was meant to be the antidote to this issue, but a certain Jimmie Johnson has made that a laughable concept in many ways.
This year, NASCAR announced a simplification of the points – a laudable effort, for sure – but the emphasis on running well each week is perhaps more pronounced than ever before. A poor finish (say 30th or worse) is, while not catastrophic, a much worse proposition than it was using the admittedly numerically confusing system we had before. Hope, however, is not lost thanks to the advent of the wild-card system. The top-10 drivers in points will qualify automatically for the big dance, but positions eleven and twelve will go to the non top-10 drivers with the most victories during the 26 races of the regular season.
The one caveat here for the wild cards is that they must be in the top 20. Which is sensible because if you’re not in the top 20 after 26 races, you have no place making a run for a championship: you’re just not good enough, fast enough or talented enough for that particular year. It’s far too easy to be critical of NASCAR, but this tweak to the rules, no doubt, is a good idea. If the arrival of the Chase was the “Matt Kenseth rule,” this change could perhaps be referred to as the “Jamie McMurray regulation.” McMurray, lest you forget, won both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 last season but missed out on the Chase. Under the new system, he’d have made it and given he ran pretty well in the final ten races – including the Chase win at Charlotte – while he wouldn’t have taken the championship, he’d have been a factor. Given the sheer difficulty of winning even one race (just ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and – prior to Phoenix in the second race of the season – Jeff Gordon, too) making the Chase would have seemed an appropriate reward for such a sterling season.
Last year, for example, Clint Bowyer and Senator-elect Jeff Burton would have missed out on the Chase while McMurray and Ryan Newman, courtesy of his points position and Phoenix victory post the cutoff race at Richmond, would have taken their places. While Bowyer was competitive in the Chase (150-point penalty aside), Burton was not; the exchange was effectively neutral for both sides of the coin.
In some senses, then, the new format provides drivers having mediocre seasons – Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, Jeff Burton and Joey Logano, for example, with a chance to run for the Championship by way of picking up a win or two. For someone like Hamlin who excels at Richmond and Pocono — tracks that host four of the remaining 18 regular season races – a poor start can be overcome more easily than before. It also gives hope to someone like Marcos Ambrose, a perennial road course threat, with the chance to make his first Chase. Jamie McMurray is another driver who could fall into this category along with Greg Biffle and Mark Martin, too; perhaps even someone like David Reutimann could sneak in.
Now, of course, it’s fair to say the drivers that qualify via the wild-card system are unlikely to be players in the final denouement but at least the chance remains. And where there’s a chance, there’s often a way, right? At least one thing’s for certain: the opportunity to win your way into the playoffs should make those final few races prior to the start of the Chase even more exciting. With the exception of those mathematically locked in, the bubble spots will be even more perilous than usual.
I’m sure when we take the green flag at Loudon to begin the 2011 Chase, there will be one driver in the elite field that will cause controversy – especially given the fact that we’ve had seven different winners in eight races, making it easy for a number of drivers to swipe a wild-card spot. To date, only Harvick has multiple victories on the year while a total of six others have one. That’s just fine with me, though, because this new wild-card format puts a premium on winning in a way that the sport hasn’t done perhaps ever before. Simply put, it’s extremely difficult to finish first – unless you have a No. 48 on the side of your car and tiger blood in your veins – so to see racing for a victory get more emphasis than in years past is an encouraging development.
*One final quick point:* After two off weekends in the first eight races, we now have a stretch of 11 straight points-paying races before the final off week prior to the series swinging through the Brickyard. Now I’m all for Easter being a weekend off, but it’s time NASCAR fixed these odd scheduling quirks with two such rapid non-Cup weekends doing a lot to kill some of the early season mojo. It’s not a massive point, I know, but in a sport that needs all the breaks it can get, this is something that needs to be fixed, sooner rather than later.
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