Here's a few reasons to like the new NASCAR points formula
On Thursday, NASCAR announced what many feared was coming; a new scoring system for the Chase to the Championship that involved both more initial entrants and multiple eliminations along the way. Like a reality TV show looking to hook its audience in for elimination night drama, NASCAR will now have 16 cars (or 37% of a 43 car field) qualify for the Chase. At three separate points along the way, drivers that fail to win will fall by the wayside, setting up a winner-take-all finale to end the season in Homestead-Miami Florida. And while I personally am not a fan of the setup (NASCAR seeking a Game 7 that doesn't exist), there are some things to like about it.
Without question, the new system does one thing; it places a premium on winning above all other things. No matter how poor a team runs during the first 26 races, if they manage to pick up a victory during that time frame they will likely make the playoffs. The only qualification outside of winning a race is to finish inside the top 30 in series points, something virtually every full time team will accomplish. Heck, Tony Stewart did that last year after 36 races and he missed the last 15.
The system is also designed to keep the focus on winning through the Chase itself. Only drivers who win a race during a particular Chase segment are guaranteed the chance to move on (slots may also be earned based on points). So there will be plenty of teams tossing a Hail Mary come the final race of each segment in an attempt to move on to the next round. The idea is to make winning the only thing that really matters (the irony, of course, is that winless Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the title last season under this scoring system. Conspiracy theorists, start your keyboards).
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Beyond the the emphasis on winning, NASCAR's new playoff format will create a much larger pool of teams with a real chance at a championship. Speaking honestly, last year's Chase began with only a handful of teams at that level. After the rain-soaked debacle at Chicago that opened the ten race playoff, that number dwindled even further. The net result was a championship fight that featured two drivers from October on. Other drivers flirted with the top two but few observers though anyone outside Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth could win a title.
The new format turns that kind of battle on its head. With 16 teams making the playoffs, well over a third of the field will find itself in the postseason. And once they're in, anything can happen. Part of what makes the NFL playoffs exciting is that no matter how different the talent levels, on any given Sunday one team has the chance to beat another. Teams that squeak into the playoffs can get hot at just the right moment and carry that momentum to a championship.
Moreover, that excitement provides fans with something sorely lacking in most of NASCAR's fan base; hope. Jimmie Johnson has won six of the last eight championships. His teammate Jeff Gordon has four titles, and satellite team Stewart-Haas Racing has another four. There's little reason for fans of other drivers to think their teams have a shot to take home the Sprint Cup against that level of dominance. Now, the “stairway to seven” looks a whole lot different. A driver like Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth doesn't need to beat Jimmie Johnson everywhere. They don't have to be better than Hendrick over the course of a full season, they just need to be close enough to make the final four at Homestead.
The ability for teams to jump from also-ran to title contender is also something that NASCAR's team owners can sell to sponsors. As an example, take AJ Allmendinger. He will be driving this year for JTG-Daugherty, a team that has struggled to be competitive over the course of a season since its inception. Realistically, the Dinger had zero chance to win a championship this year under the old points system. His team simply doesn't have the resources or the speed that the elite teams do. But now, all he needs to do to make the playoffs is win one race. A lucky break at a restrictor plate track or a great run at a road course will put him in the Chase. Either of those can and very well might happen, putting JTG-Daugherty in the sponsor spotlight that comes with making the Chase.
That's something the team can sell- particularly if Allmendinger picks up a win early in the season making his Chase berth a reality with plenty of time to go. The team will be able to pick up more sponsorship because they'll have something worth selling; a playoff-bound race team. The additional funding can help the team's research budget find more speed, making them even more competitive once the Chase itself starts. They won't become Hendrick Motorsports overnight, but it will help to level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.
A winner-take-all finale also will ratchet up the pressure on NASCAR to take a hard look at the schedule itself. While Homestead has done an adequate job as the host track for NASCAR's championship, it is far from the best choice to do so. Its cookie-cutter appearance, limited (for its size) seating capacity and lack of historical significance all make Homestead-Miami Speedway a poor choice for a race of this magnitude.
The track simply cannot compete with other options available; after all, if NASCAR is truly looking for excitement, why not head up the freeway and end the season on the high banks of Daytona instead? If they want big crowds, why not head west to Texas, a track with nearly double the seating capacity? Bristol offers a true “Boys, have at it” atmosphere. Auto Club offers California weather and star power. Even Phoenix, with its long history of great NASCAR racing, offers a better choice. The NFL doesn't hold its Super Bowl in a 40,000 seat third-rate stadium- before long, NASCAR won't either.
The new points system will also put NASCAR's new 100% rule to the maximum test. While it's unlikely that any team will risk NASCAR's wrath so openly as MWR did last season, there are plenty of ways for a teammate to impact the finish of a race. If Jimmie Johnson already has his win to move on, just how hard would you expect him to race Jeff Gordon to a checkered flag? Or if a final spot at Homestead is on the line, will we see cars pull onto pit road thanks to a dreaded “vibration”? Getting around the letter of the law will require the forethought of a five year old and with so much on the line, how many teams will be tempted to push it? And will the sanctioning body have the stones to call them when they do?
Finally, moving to an elimination format will give NASCAR what it craves the most; drama. Though it may be artificial, there is no question that a final championship race where nothing else matters will be a checkers-or-wreckers race where few drivers will be content to follow the leader. Jimmie Johnson has openly admitted he's raced to protect his position at Homestead in years past. All that is out the window. Crew chiefs will be going through gallons of antacid working out the various calls they'll need to make during the race itself. The drivers will be doing everything humanly possible to stay ahead of each other while navigating 39 other cars who will be on pins and needles. After all, what back-marker wants to be known as the guy who wrecked the would-be champion?
It may not be what many fans want. It certainly isn't what I want. But there is a method to NASCAR's madness and there are some things to look forward to this Chase season. NASCAR isn't going to take this back, no matter how much heat they draw. And maybe- just maybe- it'll even be worth watching, if only for the chaos that is bound to come. There's only eight months to go until we find out.