With the television numbers for the Chase for the Cup continuing to slide and fewer fans bothering to come out to the racetrack too, maybe it’s time for NASCAR to re-evaluate the usefulness of its playoff-style championship system.
The series should look no further than its very own second tier Nationwide Series for proof that the old every point counts system works pretty well.
Things couldn’t be closer in Nationwide, with reigning champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Eliot Sadler in a dead heat after 31 of 33 races this year. Stenhouse technically leads due to his six wins, two more than his rival.
The third-placed driver, rookie Austin Dillon, is 21 points back and still has a shot at the championship, although in would take a complete meltdown by both the leaders for that to happen. Drivers get 43 points for a win.
After crowing about how much playoff-style excitement the Chase brings to the Cup title fight, it must be aggravating for NASCAR to see a Nationwide fight too close to call without the benefit of an artificial re-adjustment of the points before the final 10 races of the year.
Introduced in 2004, the Chase for the Cup sees the top 10 drivers in points at the end of the first 26 races deemed eligible for the season championship, which is decided over the final 10 races. The qualifiers’ points are reset to 2,000 at the start of the Chase with three bonus markers added for each win. The field is rounded out by the two drivers not already in the Chase who finish in the top-20 with the most wins. The two wildcard drivers get no bonus points.
Unfortunately, it seems that fans have started to cool to the Chase. Two weeks ago, the race in Martinsville saw its TV audience sag by 22 per cent from last year, a number that had already dipped from the year before. The ratings for last weekend’s race in Texas were better, only dropping about three per cent compared to 2011. NASCAR heads to the Phoenix International Raceway this weekend with the season finale on Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The numbers don’t lie: The artificially created championship Chase is proving less popular as time goes by. NASCAR has tried to tweak the rules to increase its appeal, but it hasn’t worked.
One issue may simply be that Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson took to the Chase format like no other and has won five of the eight titles under the format and looks to be closing in on No. 6 this year.
Fans may also feel cheated during the first 26 races, because many drivers who are already a lock to be in the show often take it easy as the Chase approaches. They’d rather use the time to prepare mentally for the showdown instead of risking a costly wreck or fatigue.
No other major professional racing series uses a similar system. In Formula One, every point scored in every race counts toward the title. F1 moved to this system after the 1990 season where previously not all the points scored were counted. The switch came two years after the system robbed Alain Prost of what would have been his fifth world championship in 1988.
IndyCar counts all points, as does the highly competitive Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters and just about every major development series on the planet. Only NASCAR differs.
In addition, this year’s two-driver race to the NASCAR championship would be exactly the same with a pair of races left in the Chase, although under the old every race counts system Johnson would be ahead of Penske’s Brad Keselowski by 19 points instead of seven. From there the points spread between third and 12th using the old system would be about the same, with 116 separating Greg Biffle (1,164) and Kyle Busch (1,048). Under the new one, that gap is 115 points, although the third placed driver Clint Bowyer is 10 points closer to the leader than Biffle would be under the old system.
One driver who made the Chase this year, Jeff Gordon, would be out of the top-12, with Kyle Busch, who has been on fire since the 10-race showdown began, taking his place.
Ironically, Gordon remains the biggest loser since the Chase began: Under the old system he would now be a six-time Cup champion. Conversely, Johnson who has won all five of his titles in the Chase years, would only have two so far had NASCAR not made the switch.
But the bigger issue remains the Chase’s effect on the quality of the racing during the 26-stop “regular season.”
The existing system encourages drivers to just do enough to guarantee a spot in the Chase. With the points reset once the Chase begins, there’s no incentive for drivers solidly in a top-10 spot to push a little bit harder to gain a place late in a race for an extra marker or two that will vanish once the playoffs begin.
On the other hand, a driver who is in the top-10 under a system where every point counts might feel that any extra marker gained in any race could be the difference between winning and losing a NASCAR title. That should make drivers push harder all year and make every race mean something.
And as the TV and attendance numbers seem to indicate that NASCAR fans have already decided which kind of racing they would rather see.
Actual 2012 points standings
- Jimmie Johnson, [4 wins], 2339
- Brad Keselowski, [5 wins], 2332, -7
- Clint Bowyer, [3 wins], 2303, -36
- Kasey Kahne, [2 wins], 2281, -58
- Matt Kenseth, [3 wins], 2267, -72
- Jeff Gordon, [1 win], 2267, -72
- Denny Hamlin, [4 wins], 2266, -73
- Tony Stewart, [3 wins], 2259, -80
- Martin Truex Jr., [0 wins], 2259, -80
- Greg Biffle, [2 wins], 2256, -83
- Kevin Harvick, [0 wins], 2238, -101
- Dale Earnhardt Jr., [1 win], 2188, -151
Standings using old system with new points
- Jimmie Johnson [4 wins], 1210
- Brad Keselowski [5 wins], 1191, -19
- Greg Biffle [2 wins], 1164, -46
- Matt Kenseth [3 wins], 1161, -49
- Clint Bowyer [3 wins], 1155, -55
- Martin Truex Jr. [0 wins], 1121, -89
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. [1 win], 1087, -123
- Denny Hamlin [4 wins], 1080, -130
- Kevin Harvick [0 wins], 1079, -131
- Kasey Kahne [2 wins], 1065, -145
- Tony Stewart [3 wins], 1060, -151
- Kyle Busch [1 win], 1048, -162
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