Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Making the Show

It’s good to be the king, or so it is said. While many cite the spate of competitive racing we’ve seen thus far in 2011, it is important to recognize that the entire point structure in NASCAR has been revised/re-interpreted/re-invented to create close competition between teams.

When Brian France announced the “Chase for the Championship” format back in 2004, it seemed clear that NASCAR was trying to steal attention (and viewers) away from formidable fan favorites like college and professional football. Something else, however, was perfectly clear: the idea that NASCAR could control overall competition (and fan interest) by manipulating the nature of the points system that had been in effect, in one form or another, since 1975.

Even though critics were vocal about the advent of the Chase format, NASCAR Nation forged ahead. The new system made it difficult to ensure that particular fan favorites would make the final 10-race “postseason,” at least until modifications to the format were put into practice. Such adjustments were still far-from-perfect, as championships were sometimes decided at or before the start of the final event at Homestead.

So NASCAR, in a concerted effort to improve its level of competition (and its market share), did the only logical thing it could: it (once again) changed the rules regarding points. This fix wasn’t – at first glance – simply because changing the way championship points were allotted was necessarily worthy; it was because the sanctioning body could, in fact, make such an important decision. It possessed the power to do whatever it wanted. It’s good to be the king.

Well, from where we stand today – three races into what is certainly the most-closely contested Chase we’ve seen, if not perhaps the closest title run ever in the sport’s history – NASCAR’s decision looks like pure genius. If changing the way points are distributed was a “sink-or-swim” kind of deal, it appears that Brian France and company are now not just swimming, but sailing across the Sea of Wisdom on a yacht trimmed in gold.

For all the naysayers who wrinkled-up their noses after hearing the announcement, made just before kicking off the 2011 season, these are the same folks who now admit that maybe NASCAR was actually onto something. Did this idea make sense? The clarity of afterthought is a resounding yes.

The method to NASCAR’s madness was that the distribution of championship points needed significant tightening. The old formula for allotting points had always been a bit flawed, despite its well-meaning intentions. Such “well-meaning intentions” are often at the center of NASCAR rule changes, regardless of whether we’re talking about a safety modification, a competition regulation or some other necessary step in the sport’s evolution.

NASCAR – being NASCAR – has the power to change any of its rules pretty much overnight. Just like a technical development can be instituted with the issuance of a memo, competition changes can come about with little more than the distribution of a press release or the hosting of a news conference. If some aspect of the sport doesn’t seem to be working sufficiently (and there’s a subjective term if there ever was one!), NASCAR administrators can simply wave their magic hard cards and … presto! A change for the supposedly/hopefully better transforms the old-and-staid into the new-and-improved.

This notion is what brought us to the exciting Chase for the Championship we’re currently enjoying (or currently cursing, depending on how poorly your favorite title contender is doing). It’s not that the Chase format in-and-of-itself is all that new, given that 2011 marks the eighth consecutive running of this postseason pressure cooker.

The difference this year came with the announcement, just prior to Speedweeks at Daytona, of how competition points would be distributed. If the Chase brought a new look into NASCAR, it was the formula for awarding drivers and teams points that brought new life. Suddenly and with little warning, stock car racing became an entirely different sport.

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The result of this most recent change has been one of the most competitive Sprint Cup seasons ever, featuring more winners, more first-time victors and more of an emphasis on pit strategy, intelligent planning and plain old good luck than we’ve seen in several years. Earning championship points has always been essential to NASCAR success, but never more so than in 2011 – the year when the rules took a turn towards the better.

NASCAR has always tried to reward consistency, but being consistent week-in-and week-out didn’t always equate with exciting racing. When teams focused on accumulating points and safeguarding their position within the standings, the end result was akin to buying groceries after a long day on the job: you knew something pretty important was happening right then and there, but the thrill was gone.

The initial idea central to NASCAR’s early days was that race fans deserved to see huge fields of competitive cars campaigned by the top names in the sport. During the sport’s infancy, when now-legendary drivers like Curtis Turner, “Fireball” Roberts and Junior Johnson were Grand National regulars, the best racing usually occurred during the early laps of an event.

A “go-or-blow” mindset was prevalent since there didn’t seem to be any merit in finishing back in the pack. The emphasis was on running up front and staying there (if you could) until the checkered flag flew – nothing more. What points system there was during those early days was confusing, enough that most people didn’t bother to understand it. The races may have been great, but unless you were a frontrunner, there was little reward for surviving the events and being a presence at the finish.

NASCAR acknowledged this fact and turned to racing historian/statistician Bob Latford for guidance. Latford had been around NASCAR since its inception, doing public relations work for several major participants in motorsports. A request from then-Winston Cup director Bill Gazaway, with the sport struggling to redefine its championship led Latford to re-design the existing NASCAR points system.

The distribution system in use at that time was unwieldy and in 1973 it awarded Benny Parsons the Winston Cup championship on the merits of his scoring only one win during an otherwise consistent season. Parsons earned the 1973 Winston Cup crown after just one victory, 15 top fives, 21 top 10s, an average starting position of 7.7 and an average finishing position of 10.1 for the year.

Given these statistics, and what they seemed to say about stock car racing to the general public, NASCAR turned to Bob Latford for a new-and-improved method that would allot championship points with a renewed emphasis on winning. Latford toyed with various options and models, then came up with his restructured point system in 1974.

Under Bob Latford’s “new” system (which NASCAR used in various forms from 1975 until 2010), the winner of a race would earn 175 points, with the point total dropping by five for each of the top-six finishers. The next five finishers would see their point allotments diminish by four for each position, followed by a three-point decrease for every finishing position from 12th through last place. Latford’s system rewarded teams for running near the front and scoring top-five results, but the overall distribution in use made for large gaps in points between finishers.

That in turn often led to large gaps in points between championship contenders come the end of the season. Having a team clinch the championship a race (or even two) before the final event was not unusual under Latford’s points system, nor was it still unheard of for a driver to win the Winston Cup title on the merits of a one-win season.

The points system Latford developed in 1974 was used within the sport from 1975 until 2010 – the point when the current new points structure took effect. To fully document the accomplishments and achievements of Latford here would be impossible. For a concise overview of Latford’s career in racing, I recommend an interview from 2003 (conducted several months before Latford passed away) by motorsports journalist Godwin Kelly.

I had the opportunity to spend time with Latford at Michigan International Speedway back in the fall of 2000, having been introduced to him by Buddy Baker in the media center. Latford was well aware of the role he had played in the evolution of NASCAR, but he also seemed resolved to the fact that the sport was quickly out-strategizing the point system he developed in 1974. He had been part of stock car racing since its beginning, but his efforts were starting to look antiquated alongside NASCAR competition in a new century.

It was the aftermath of the 2003 Winston Cup season that prompted NASCAR to change the rules for competition yet again as far as points were concerned. Matt Kenseth won the championship (like Parsons did before him) on the basis of scoring one victory in 36 races. Kenseth’s one win was backed up by 11 top fives, 25 top 10s, an average starting position of 21.3 and an average finishing position of 10.2 for the year.

Compare Kenseth’s 2003 statistics to Parsons’s 1973 results and you’ll see the overall advantage to consistency – but you’ll also see a recipe for frustration. Ryan Newman, by comparison to Kenseth in 2003, had eight wins but wound up finishing sixth (and 311 points behind) in the championship standings. It looked as though NASCAR’s old dog needed to learn a new trick, and Brian France was all-too-happy to oblige.

France’s answer to the disparity of 2003 was the Chase for the Championship format in 2004. The change (as even new fans have seen) was met with a mixture of acceptance and apathy as NASCAR Nation debated the value of a postseason that eliminated all but 10, then later 12 teams from any shot at the title.

NASCAR’s ability to make changes in response to 1) an implied lack of truly competitive racing and 2) increased television ratings for college and professional football coverage gave the sanctioning body the wherewithal to completely restructure the basic format of the business. With one executive decision, NASCAR turned its 36-event schedule into – essentially – two separate seasons: the 26-race preliminary round that gets you into (hopefully) the Chase, and the 10-race Chase for the crown itself.

Having the ultimate power to institute significant changes meant that NASCAR was able to re-invent the sport of stock car racing once again. What began as “run up front” had turned into “run silent and run deep.” When complacency seemed to produce a competitive advantage, the emphasis shifted to “run like hell and be there for the final 10.”

And so here we are, mired in what has been a most historic Sprint Cup season. All of the aforementioned changes look – by today’s standards, at least – to be the stuff of absolute genius. Fans are energized, both television ratings and event attendance seem to be on the rise and race teams are wrestling with the pressures of increased competition within a new-and-improved points structure that forces teams to work more, run harder and outperform their peers every week.

A team cannot have a bad result because that bad run affects everything else that follows. With the points system being designed to keep the separation between finishers tight, two or three significantly-poor performances can jeopardize a team’s entire season and keep them from making the playoffs.

Elimination of point gaps between finishers is where the new-and-improved system shines. Given the 43-to-one, single-point distribution of championship points, combined with the wildcard feature rewarding overall wins by non top-10 teams, the revised points system truly rewards consistency. It also, at the same time, rewards running up front and earning big finishes.

For as oddly simple as the new system sounds, it appears to have added a layer of complexity to running the NASCAR schedule. Even if only one or two drivers enter Homestead with a slight point advantage over the rest of the contenders, the inherent nature of this new system ensures that the best finish that afternoon will decide the title. This is what fans have wanted, and this is how the 2011 championship will unfold.

No disrespect to Bob Latford and all of his well-intentioned efforts, but this new-and-improved points system is clearly the best. NASCAR has the authority to do whatever it wants, and this adjustment is how they want to make their show.

Is there the chance that this new system is flawed in some not-yet-obvious way? Is there a dull Chase for the Championship lurking somewhere out there in NASCAR’s future? The answer to both of these questions is yes. But for right now, the new points system is a gamble NASCAR is willing to take.

And right now, their show looks pretty great.

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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