Race Weekend Central

It’s a Three-Horse Race

The Cup Series point system was changed last year to make it easier for fans to understand the points earned by each driver during each race. Like many changes that are implemented in sports, there are unintended consequences that can have a lasting impact. NASCAR may or may not have wanted to reward consistency more with the new point system but, in the long run, that is exactly what has happened. Drivers who finish near the front week after week often find it more difficult to overcome the point system than drivers who have sporadic performances. Unlike the old system, top of the standings results do not carry any more weight than ones in the middle of the pack. Because of that, gaining many points on a driver who does not have a DNF is nearly impossible. As a result, the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title is down to a three horse race — even though there’s still six weeks to go.

Despite a ho-hum, 14th-place result at Talladega Denny Hamlin remains one of only three likely contenders to take home this year’s Sprint Cup.

Prior to this weekend’s Talladega event, most NASCAR “experts” were trying to feed you a line that all of the drivers in the Chase were still very much in contention for the title. In reality, it was more like a six-driver contest with everyone beyond the top six 39 points behind the leader. Thanks to the unadulterated carnage that occurred in the third turn at Talladega, though, the race is now down to three horses. For those people who are trying to beat the drum for the opposite, saying anyone can go on a run and rebound. just look at Jeff Gordon’s last three weeks.

Gordon had his stuck throttle at Chicago, an ugly wreck which resulted in him coming into Loudon 47 points out of the championship lead. Gordon finished third at Loudon, but gained a whopping two points on the leader, so he was 45 points out as the series headed to Dover. Another second-place finish, outstanding last Sunday should have given the No. 24 team hope. Instead, well, Gordon _lost_ three points because Brad Keselowski won the race. The “struggles” continued even through yesterday’s race at Talladega. Gordon was in second place when the caution flag flew, on the final lap but Keselowski wound up seventh. The net result was a gain of six points, made slightly better only because Keselowski didn’t lead a lap.

So let’s add that up. Two second-place finishes and a third, over the last three races — an average finish of 2.3 — and Gordon has picked up _five points_ on the leader of the standings. He’s still 42 points behind with six races to go, a mark that appears increasingly insurmountable this season. Due to the fact the point system only has a difference of one point between each finishing position, large number deficits simply cannot be overcome.

Try as the sanctioning body might to say winning is rewarded in this new point system, the results simply do not show that. One bad finish can be so damaging to a driver, it can’t be overcome in the point system with multiple wins. The bonus for winning a race in the Chase is simply three points. Prior to the Chase, you got the three points for the win, and you also got three bonus points for each win during the seeding process. With that bonus, the penalty for going for a win and failing is far more penal than settling for a runner-up spot. What if you try for the win, fail, and wind up with a position in the 30s?

In looking at the points–and they very well could change slightly as the video from the end of Talladega is still under review–the top three in the standings are the only drivers who still have a chance to win the title. Keselowski is 14 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 23 points clear of Denny Hamlin as of this writing. As mentioned above, Jeff Gordon finished in the top three the last three races and he’s gained a whopping five points. If Jimmie Johnson can pull off a similar feat over the final six races and Keselowski can maintain his current pace, even Johnson won’t be able to overcome the deficit.

Jeff Gordon has to be getting frustrated at this point. Despite three top-3 finishes in the first four races of the Chase, his lone wreck at Chicagoland leaves him nearly a full race’s worth of points behind championship leader Brad Keselowski.

The former point system paid more points for top six finishes than top 11 ones. It then paid more for top 11 results than the rest of the finishes. In the end, if a driver could finish in the top five each week against a driver finishing top 15, he could make up significant ground. In the new point system, it is just not as dramatic a difference and, as a result, overcoming a 30-point deficit in six races is highly unlikely. Beyond Johnson and Hamlin, the rest of the Chasers would have to win the remaining six races and hope for struggles from all three of the top three point position drivers at this point in time. If Kasey Kahne wins the next six races, and Keselowski finishes second in all six without leading a lap, Kahne would still end up tied with Keselowski, although he would win the title by virtue of more overall wins. At this point, however, the odds of Keselowski finishing second in every race are far higher than Kahne winning all six. With six races left, the drivers outside of the top three are going to have to outpoint the top guys by at least six points per race, and most of them more than that. The drivers in the top three spots are having too good of a year to give up that many points over a six-race stretch.

If you need one more example of the finality of the position the rest of the Chasers are in, simply look at Matt Kenseth after this weekend. Kenseth led the last lap and won the race, scoring 47 points. He is now a solid 12th place in the Chase, 62 out of the top spot. Repeat: he gained 10 points at Talladega and still remains at the bottom of the Chase standings. If he gained the same number on Keselowski over the next six weeks, Kenseth would still be two points behind.

The mathematics are simply stacked against the rest of the Chasers. Keselowski, Johnson, and Hamlin are the cream of the crop right now, and Hamlin is even on the verge of being eliminated if he has another bad race in the next week or two. One thing to remember is that three of the next six races are on 1.5-mile tracks. Johnson’s average finish on Intermediates this year is 4.33; Hamlin’s is 9.00 while Keselowski’s is 14.33. Martinsville, the one short track left is the playground of Hamlin and Johnson. Hamlin has won four of the last nine races there, while Johnson is sitting on six wins and a 4.3 average finish while Keselowski has one finish in single digits and a 13.4 career average. Phoenix is another Johnson stronghold, one where his average finish is 5.3 to Hamlin’s 10.9 and Keselowski’s 22.2.

As they say in any financial prospectus, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. However, when race drivers take a liking to a track, they can generally replicate their performances. Johnson’s year on plate tracks has been forgettable to say the least and yet he has come out of the Talladega weekend just 14 points back. Keselowski is having a tremendous year, up on top while Hamlin is still within striking distance. Most likely, this Chase is going to come down to whether Keselowski will stumble down the stretch and if Johnson can maintain the pressure. As a longshot, if Hamlin can go on a Stewartesque run and win five of the last six, he might be able to take it from the other two. Outside of them, the rest of the drivers are eliminated, even if the mathematics technically say they aren’t.

Don’t blame me… blame the point system.

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