Ryan: Points matter more, not less, in NASCAR’s new format
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
NASCAR’s talking points don’t seem to endorse talking about points anymore.
The “messaging” distributed to Sprint Cup PR reps for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway contains no reference to points among cheery advisements to promote the industry’s collaboration on improving the quality of racing. There also was nary a mention of points in a NASCAR-issued white paper last month that could have been a blueprint for the latest chapter of pervasive groupthink in a cloistered garage infamous for monolithic worldviews.
–The new Chase for the Sprint Cup is exciting, compelling and easy to understand.
–The format rewards winning, elevates the importance of each race across the schedule and ultimately rewards those who perform at the highest level.
–Fans — especially longtime fans — overwhelmingly want winning races to matter more than it does now.
Since the Daytona 500, the Stepford-esque refrain from drivers has been an insistence that “points racing” — settling for being good instead of daring to be great — has been excised from NASCAR. Once romanticized with homespun affection (the blueprint for the basic structure used from 1975 to 2010 allegedly was concocted on a cocktail napkin in a Daytona Beach saloon), points now are targeted as the scourge of all that ails stock car racing.
But it raises a simple question: Why are points being tabulated if they don’t matter?
Because they do matter. Possibly more than ever.
Despite the incessant campaign to abolish “We had a good points day” from the NASCAR vernacular with a new championship format, consistency will remain valued in the Sprint Cup Series this year and in every season to come.
The restructuring of the Chase into an elimination-style postseason concluding in a one-race title runoff is a radical departure, but it won’t change the fundamental underpinnings of a sport in which there are 42 losers and only one winner a week.
It’s an inconvenient truth that, short of just awarding a championship to the winningest driver (a novel concept yet one that can’t guarantee the Super Bowl-style season finale craved and created by NASCAR), there is no way to remove the impact of season-long results.
There might not be public proclamations of “good points days” anymore, but they still exist and likely will help determine the expanded Chase field.
There will be 16 title contenders to start the final 10 races, and berths are awarded by wins.
But what if there aren’t 16 different winners in the 26-race regular season?
It’s a good question, because it seems likely to happen.
The highest number of winners in the first 26 races during the 10 seasons comprising making up the Chase era was 15 in 2011. The average number of regular-season winners during that time frame was 12.5.
The remaining slots would be filled by winless drivers via points totals.
When the four-round Chase begins, the importance of points will be magnified. A win will guarantee advancement in each of the first three rounds, but each will offer only three shots at victory lane.
In the initial cutdown from 16 to a dozen drivers, at least nine will advance on points (potentially more if there are winners outside the Chase), along with at least five making the second cut and at least one in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It’s well-documented if the new system were in place last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the title despite being winless. It’s been dismissed as improbable because strategy and team behavior would change under this new format.
But what if it wasn’t a fluke? What if “a good points day” becomes the key to winning the new Chase?
It could be argued it now is more probable for a driver to win the championship without winning. Resetting the points four times in 10 races increases the likelihood of an arbitrary outcome.
It’s laudable Brad Keselowski rued consecutive third-place finishes because “wins are the only things that count” and teammate Joey Logano said it was “all about the win” Sunday in making a desperate move on winner Kevin Harvick at Phoenix International Raceway.
But reducing the emphasis on talking about points doesn’t diminish their import. They will have a major impact in determining the 2014 champion.
Trying to pretend otherwise would be ignoring the point.
Number of regular-season winners since advent of the Chase
NASCAR’s revamped playoff system allows for 16 drivers to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The drivers with the most wins make the field, followed by those with the most points from the top 30. In no year since the Chase began have more than 15 different drivers won in the first 26 races and that’s happened once: