For the past five years, NASCAR has run a contest for celebrities and media where entrants predict how the Chase for the Cup will unfold over the 10-race playoff series that determines the season championship.
The format is simple: Contestants pick where they think the 12 Chase drivers will place in the standings after each race. Unfortunately for those brave enough to attempt an entry, trying to figure out the possibilities without access to highly powerful cloud computing infrastructure is mind-boggling at best.
NASCAR uses basic technology in its racing cars, such as carburetors, iron block engines and steel brakes, and it makes up for that lack of sophistication with its point system. Complicated doesn't even begin to describe it.
To start with, there's the ridiculous number of points handed out. A driver takes home 185 points for winning a race, although that automatically becomes 190 because NASCAR awards five bonus points for leading at least one lap, even under a caution period. Drivers also get a five-point bonus for leading the most laps, so a race winner can earn as much as 195 points.
Things just get silly from there, especially when bonus points get added to the totals. For example, drivers regularly score as many, and in many cases more points than the guy one spot ahead in the classification due to bonuses. That simply makes no sense at all.
In addition, every driver who starts an engine for a race scores points.
When it comes to racing, pushing a button to fire up a motor should not be enough to deliver a minimum of 34 points. That seems to be a North American tendency also practiced in the IndyCar Series. But in racing, points should be difficult to score.
In both NASCAR and IndyCar, a driver could presumably crash out of the season finale on the first lap, but yet still score enough points to win a championship. And for a series that continues to claim that it wants to put more emphasis on wins, NASCAR has a funny way of showing it.
For example, in Formula One, the first place finisher gets 25 points and the last point scorer in 10th place gets one, or four per cent of the winner's tally. Before F1 changed its points system this year, the last scorer still got one, which was 10 per cent of the winner's total of 10.
In NASCAR, it's 18 per cent, and that's a spread between first and 43rd (185 vs. 34). In the stock car series the 10th place finisher gets 134 points or roughly 28 per cent of the winner's haul.
The inflated points means a driver who wins one week and then has a rough outing the next loses ground to one who is more consistent. For example, a driver with a win and a 25th scores six fewer points (184 vs. 278) than one who takes two eighth place finishes. In F1, the difference would be 13 points in favour of the race winner, which in NASCAR terms is roughly 99 markers.
The Chase for the Cup format adds to the argument that wins don't mean much in NASCAR. The 12 drivers who qualify to fight for the championship have their points reset to 5,000 and then 10 are added for each win. This is supposed to reward race winners, but judging from the first Chase race in Loudon N.H. on Sunday, it doesn't happen. Jimmie Johnson, five-time winner in the first 26 races, went from second to seventh in one race after a poor outing where he finished 25th, underlining that the points added per win to start the Chase are not significant enough.
And rather than fix this complex system, there are rumblings that NASCAR will institute a knockout style Chase in 2011, with two drivers eliminated after every two races, and leaving just four in the end to fight for the title in the final two races. But that would not only add intricacy to a system that's already overly difficult for fans to follow without hiring a statistician.
Instead, here's what NASCAR should do.
First have only one-third of the field - 14 cars - score points, with the winner getting 40. Separate first from second by 10 points to give a winner a reward for taking the chequered flag, and then have second to fifth five points apart. The bottom two-thirds of the scorers would be separated by two points from fifth to 10th and then one point from 10th to 14th. Ditch the bonus for leading a lap, but give the driver who leads the most laps one point along with the pole sitter at each race.
The good news is that the Chase format can remain the same under the new points system, since a reset at 5,000 plus 10 points per win would make victories mean much more and therefore adequately reward drivers for taking chequered flags in the first 26 races.
Under this scenario, Johnson would have still started the Chase with 5,050 points and despite not scoring anything in Loudon, he still would have remained second to Denny Hamlin who would have left New Hampshire with 5,090 points. And fans would easily be able to calculate that Johnson was a win behind. Bowyer would be fourth with 5,041 four points behind Kevin Harvick.
Oh, how'd my first weekend in NASCAR pick the Chase positions game go?
Got one out of 12 right for predicting Hamlin would stay first overall.
Proposed NASCAR points system
Existing NASCAR points system