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NASCAR point changes underwhelm, miss mark

NASCAR point changes underwhelm, miss mark

NASCAR point changes underwhelm, miss mark

by Matt Taliaferro

Color me underwhelmed. And just a bit confused.

Ending weeks of speculation, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced changes to the sport’s points structure and Chase to the Championship format in a press conference at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday evening.

Chief among the changes is a revamped season-long points structure that awards 43 points to the race winner, 42 to second and decreasing to one point for the 43rd-place finisher. Drivers will also be rewarded a one-time-only, one-point bonus for leading a lap, one for the driver leading the most laps and a three-point bonus to the winner. Added up, the winner of any race can earn a max of 48 points.

As for NASCAR’s controversial 10-race Chase for the Championship, France laid out a new qualification system, wherein the top 10 in Sprint Cup points will make the Chase, but in an interesting wrinkle, the final two slots will now be filled by the drivers within the top 20 not already qualified with the most wins. Any ties will be broken by virtue of points earned.

Seeding for the Chase will again be based on number of wins, but qualified drivers will now be separated by three points instead of 10. The two "wild card" drivers that earned spots in the Chase will not be awarded bonus points for wins.

France initially stressed winning — as in drivers battling for weekly wins — as a driving force behind the changes.

"The fans have been clear, though, about one thing: They care about winning," France stated. "They don't want drivers to just be content with a good points day or a good run."

However, when prompted in a Q&A with the media afterward, he implied that Goal No. 1 was simplicity in understanding how drivers are rewarded points, not winning.

"This is a goal ... the most important reason is simplicity," he said. "And this allows us a way to communicate the standings. This is a very, I think, straightforward way to do that.

"We didn't make a fundamental change on winning. We've always had a balance, and we like that. We didn't want to change it too much. We have to be cautious. We still have 43 cars racing out there. We can't measure things just on wins alone."

NASCAR President Mike Helton echoed the latter sentiment, telling reporters that a balance must be struck between winning and consistency throughout a long 36-week season. And in the sanctioning body’s view, a possible six-point cushion between first- and second-place finishers on a weekly basis combined with two Chase slot filled by virtue of wins alone accomplishes that goal.

OK, fair enough. The win-and-you’re-in Chase wild cards discourage just being satisfied with "good points days." But the 43-1 points format, when closely examined, does not award winning any more than the former Latford system. In fact, it penalizes a bad day more than rewarding a good one. And isn’t encouraging drivers to race all-out for wins the real way to attract a television audience? After all, it’s all about winning at the end of the day. Always has been.

And at what point since the Latford system was instituted in 1975 has simplicity been an issue? It certainly has not been a sticking point with fans over the last few turbulent seasons that witnessed NASCAR implement a playoff-style title format that coincided with plunging television ratings and decreased at-track attendance. Was the Latford system antiquated? Yes, but antiquated and confusing have totally different meanings, and at no point has an uproar from the fanbase or media been focused on not understanding how points were paid.

France, though, cited the NASCAR Fan Council’s input and the sanctioning body’s perception that a tight points battle in 2010 was difficult to follow and explain.

"We definitely communicated with our Fan Council," he said. "And listen, we saw with Denny (Hamlin), Jimmie (Johnson), Kevin (Harvick), through (last) fall, you needed a mathematician at the end, and you still might to some degree. But it was complicated to follow that. You knew somebody was behind and whatever. This will be easier for our fans and for our announcers and others in the booth to cover what is at stake at any given time during a race or the season."

The mathematician quip is a gross overstatement, of course. Points between the three competitors were compiled and relayed in real time throughout the telecast of the final race at Homestead. Viewers don’t need a calculator when the numbers are presented to them and change instantaneously as cars make up or lose ground.

No, this restructuring is about NASCAR making a third tweak to the points system in eight years — a staggering number for any sport at any level — simply because it can (or cannot, as in "cannot quit tinkering"). Fans didn’t ask for an overhaul to the point system, they asked for a refined schedule, shorter races, an emphasis on winning, better television coverage and a close examination of whether the Chase was needed at all.

Instead, the fans — the true fans that have remained loyal despite a plethora of poor decisions made by the governing body over the last decade — had more unwanted change forced upon them. It was change directed at bringing in the coveted 18-34 year old demographic, not appeasing the loyalists that NASCAR so dearly needs. It was change along the lines of what took Darlington’s Labor Day date and blurred the lines between a brand-specific car and a "spec" machine. It was change directed at attracting a new breed of fan. And it was these changes that precipitated the most turbulent years the sport has experienced in decades.

So color me underwhelmed, because a premium could have been placed on winning and was not. And color me confused, because I cannot understand how the leadership of the sport has not learned from its mistakes of the last 10 years.

But I’m sure Larry McReynolds can explain to me the positive aspects of change for the sake of change, where illusion is more important than tangible progress.

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro

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