Johnson provides a reason to alter points system

Fans hoping for an upset in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, or at least a close points race, are already bitterly disappointed.

Imagine how the drivers feel.

With three wins in the first five Chase races, Jimmie Johnson seems well on his way to a fourth straight Cup title.

He was already the driver to beat, a fact he reinforced with a strong start to the Chase. But when his closest competitors faltered Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, he put them a lap down, making this year’s championship race seem like a foregone conclusion.

Halfway through the Chase, Johnson already has a larger lead — 90 points — than he has had at this point in any of his three previous championship years.

Johnson and his No. 48 team are proving once again that they are practically unbeatable in the Chase.

Why?

Because they win races and make very few mistakes, and when you do those two things, the competition barely has a chance.

Johnson and his team have mastered NASCAR’s current Chase format. They peak at the right time each year and then take advantage of NASCAR’s playoff format to crush the other championship contenders.

And as long as Johnson is with Hendrick Motorsports, and he and crew chief Chad Knaus are together, that doesn’t figure to change any time soon.

So what does NASCAR do to shake things up?

Alter the Chase format yet again.

Since the Chase was first implemented in 2004, there is one change that fans and competitors alike have called for: a separate points system for Chase drivers and the rest of the field.

With the way this year’s championship race is unfolding, it may be time to make such a move.

A separate points system, in which Chase drivers earn points based on their finish in relation to the other championship contenders, would prevent what we are currently seeing, which is a runaway.

Under one scenario, the highest finishing Chase driver each week would earn 12 points, with the second-best Chase driver getting 11 and so on (see chart). The driver with the worst finish among the 12 drivers would get just one point.




What if?
So what would the standings look like using a 12 point system? Jimmie Johnson still leads, but the competition is a lot closer.
Driver
Current points
12 point system
Jimmie Johnson
5,923
50
Mark Martin
-90
-7
Jeff Gordon
-135
-7
Tony Stewart
-155
-13
Kurt Busch
-177
-15
JP Montoya
-195
-8
Greg Biffle
-268
-21
Ryan Newman
-288
-23
Kasey Kahne
-331
-22
Carl Edwards
-341
-31
Denny Hamlin
-372
-28
Brian Vickers
-485
-35

Under such a scenario, the most points a Chase driver could lose in any one race would be 11, keeping the points race reasonably close.

An additional bonus for winning a race — something practically everyone would like to see — would give drivers who fall behind early in the Chase a chance to catch the leader.

Though the 12 Chase contenders are on the track each week with 31 other drivers, they aren’t racing them for points, so they shouldn’t be penalized in the standings when they finish behind them in a race.

Under the current system, different Chase drivers are practically eliminated each week because of a poor run or some kind of misfortune, saddling them with a poor finish and, as a result, a points deficit they can’t overcome.

The race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway was a perfect example.

Juan Pablo Montoya came in third in the standings, just 58 points out, after the first four races. But after a couple of fender-benders damaged his car at Charlotte, he finished 35th, losing 137 points to Johnson. He is now 195 points behind.

Barring a miracle, Montoya went from being a serious championship contender to being practically eliminated.

Mark Martin, who led the standings for three weeks, was only 12 points back after four races. He had an off night at Charlotte, finishing 17th, and now finds himself 90 points behind.

Jeff Gordon has three straight top-four finishes, yet he continues to lose ground to Johnson and is 135 points back.

All three drivers should lose points to Johnson when they finish behind him, but not so many that they are practically eliminated in one or two races.

All three drivers — plus Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, who are still in the mix — must now hope that Johnson suffers some type of misfortune in the next few races to even have a shot at the championship.

Instead of being able to gain considerable ground by outrunning Johnson in the next race, they must all hope and pray that Johnson suffers a blown engine or gets in a wreck. Under the current system, that is their only hope.

Instead, one bad race — or in Martin’s case, just an off day — has doomed their championship hopes.

Particularly since Johnson and his team seem immune to such problems. They have now gone 31 straight Chase races without finishing outside the top 15.

Johnson’s dominance and near-perfect performance leave little room for mistakes or bad luck by other contenders. And as Montoya says, “If you’re expecting to have 10 clean races, then you’re dreaming.”

Unless you’re Johnson.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin expected to be a serious contender in this year’s Chase. But after an off week at Dover and a blown engine at Charlotte, he is 372 points behind Johnson, his championship hopes over and his frustration at a fever pitch.

Hamlin says the blown engine and the points he lost at Charlotte are “what sucks about this points system.”

“If you have one bad week, whether because of a driver mistake or a parts failure, you’re done,” he said. “Your season’s over with. That part of it is frustrating.”

Bad luck and off days are part of racing, and Johnson and his team deserve to win the title if they avoid them and run up front each week.

But asking even the best teams to run 10 straight races without an off week or a problem is unrealistic. And being practically eliminated because of one bad race is unfair.

The 12 championship contenders didn’t make the Chase by being nearly perfect for 26 weeks. They made it by running consistently and overcoming off weeks.

Once they made it, the points were reset, bunching the fielding up with the 12 drivers separated by only 40 points this year.

For most, a deficit of more than 300 points was wiped out — even Johnson was nearly 300 points behind former leader Stewart.

The same logic should apply once the Chase begins.

For those who think such a system would penalize Johnson’s spectacular Chase performance, consider that he wasn’t the series best driver during the regular season — he trailed Stewart by 272 points after 26 races, yet was tied with him when the Chase began.

The Chase is designed to take the 12 best drivers and teams and let them battle it out over the final 10 races. NASCAR’s hope is that the championship battle comes down to the final race with at least four or five teams still in contention.

That is unrealistic under the current system — and with the way Johnson and his team are performing.

Johnson would still be the driver to beat, and would likely still win, under a different system. But at least it wouldn’t be a runaway and more teams might be in the hunt until the very end.


Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.

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