NASCAR sets up simpler point system

NASCAR Chairman Brian France laid out the new points system for the 2011 season Wednesday, but what is the sport really trying to accomplish?

France’s answer: “We’re going to make the point system simpler and easier to understand.”

Seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty acknowledges that NASCAR’s goal was “to make it simple for me.” He also agrees that a simplified points system is one way of attracting new fans.

“Anything that’s complicated, people are not going to sit down and learn about,” Petty said. “But if you’ve got 43 for winning and one for last, then anybody that’s just a casual fan can keep up with the points as far as that part of it is concerned. The only thing that will confuse that is … bonus points. I don’t like bonus points, because that’s got nothing to do with the race.”

Petty experienced five different point systems since he debuted on the NASCAR Grand National tour in 1958. However, Petty does not advocate bonus points and wild cards. He says the most basic points system would be based on consistency and winning.

“We’re the only sport there is that gives relief for leading a race or winning a race or whatever,” Petty said. “If you play a basketball game, football game, golf, the last shot is what counts. … That’s the way it ought to be in NASCAR. It ought to be so simple that a 10-year-old can keep up with the point standings.

“The guy that wins the race, he gets the trophy, he gets all the money, he gets publicity for himself, he gets publicity for his crew, for his sponsors and stuff. Hey, man, he’s the winner. That’s all he needs. He needs 43 points and no more.

“A wild card would be like football. We’re going to take the Panthers – they won two games, and we’re going to let them play for the championship. That’s how dumb is it from that standpoint. If a guy wins five races or six races, so what? The points is what it’s all about. The championship is what it’s all about, which is a collection of winning and losing and who has the best year.”

Still, most competitors agree that simpler is better. Yet under the basic 43-to-1 system, the consequence to teams not finishing races will be harsh. How does a driver recover when faced with a huge deficit? And when it comes to crunch time before the Chase, will drivers ramp up the action or err on the side of caution?

“A bad day is going to hurt a hell of a lot more than it used to,” Clint Bowyer says. “So I don’t know what that’s going to do as far as the racing and things like that. You’re out there giving it 100 percent, you’re out there to win the race each and every week anyway, but you’re not going to step underneath somebody if you’re loose and you know they’re going to make you even looser. You’re not going to try to make that pass for a fifth place and take a chance of finishing 35th.”

Bowyer had to scramble to finish in the top 10 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last fall. After winning the first Chase race at New Hampshire, Bowyer faced a 150-point penalty for failing postrace inspection at NASCAR’s Research & Development Center.

Will the sanctioning body mitigate penalties to reflect the new point structure?

“It will be proportioned similarly,” France says. “Obviously, the numerical number will be different. But it will be similar penalties for similar penalties for similar infractions.”

NASCAR President Mike Helton defended the third change to the Chase structure since the program was introduced in 2004 with 10 drivers as a way to remain “relevant and to grow.”

In the past seven seasons, the sanctioning body later seeded the Chase based on 10 points for wins, rather than five-point increments according to the way the drivers finished 26 races. After the Chase expanded from 10 to 12 drivers in 2007, NASCAR also dropped the 400-point window entering the postseason.

“Our goal was with this change to give a fan an opportunity whether that fan is 5 years old or 85 years old to sit in the grandstand without technology or anything … but be able to look at the racetrack and in their mind understand the fact that one position on that track is worth one point,” Helton says.

“And we think they’ve got a better opportunity to get more engaged in the race by being able to understand it.”

Current Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson acknowledges he originally thought the Chase “was a crazy idea” and didn’t embrace the program. That was before he won five consecutive titles under that format. Since then, he hasn’t second-guessed NASCAR’s judgment.

“They’re going to do what’s best for the sport in their eyes, and it’s my job to find a way to win under whatever rules are there,” Johnson says. “I’m really trying not to get caught up in any of those types of changes.”

Johnson says because teams “do pay attention” to points inside the car, the system would make it simpler for drivers to calculate standings from behind the wheel — particularly in a situation similar to last year‘s season finale at Homestead.

“The points were constantly shuffling around, and unless you were watching on television to see the calculation on the top of the screen, you really didn’t know what was going on,” Johnson says. “So if fans don’t have a scanner on and it’s just a casual fan watching from the grandstands, they had no clue where the drama lay on the track.

“This would be a step in that direction, to help people know what’s going on. I think, in general, our sport’s good, and we’re getting down to some smaller areas to make the experience better and better.

“This probably carries over into viewership at home in making it a little easier, but the way I took it yesterday — and how was served up to us — was if the fan at the track is going to experience a race for the first time, they get it. There’s an argument there that we need to capture those fans.”

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