The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup has been an ever evolving “playoff” system for the top tier division of NASCAR since 2004.
It started as a very basic system, the top 10 drivers in points (and any more who were within 400 of the leader, but this never happened) after the 26 race “Regular Season” would make the “Playoffs”. Bonus points were given based on where you finished that regular season, the driver in first would have 5 points more than the driver in second and so on for the rest of the contenders.
After 3 seasons of this format, with 3 different champions, NASCAR made their first alteration to the system. The first was expanding the field to 12 drivers, presumably to try avoid big names from missing out on the playoffs. Many fans were against this as the top 12 had never had any importance in racing – a top 10 finish has always been used as a primary statistic, and therefore the 10 driver field made sense.
The biggest change to the system however, was the change in allocation of bonus points. No longer were points given to driver based on their regular season seeding, it was now all about wins. NASCAR has tried pushing the importance of wins and this was their first step. Each driver was given 10 bonus points for each win, regular season points no longer mattered once the Chase was reset.
This lasted 4 years and 4 Jimmie Johnson championships before they changed to the current system in 2011. Along with the new, simpler, points syetem, NASCAR adjusted how the field was determined for the Chase. Now, only the top 10 drivers are guaranteed a Chase seed and the last 2 spots are “Wild Cards”. Drivers finishing outside the top 10 but inside the top 20 would get a Chase birth based on wins. The 2 drivers with the most wins in those positions would make the Chase, but would not receive bonus points for their wins.
All 3 of these systems have had the same problem: They don’t reflect the whole sport.
Motorsports are different than every other sport. There is no black and white win or lose. You can have a successful day without winning because even a 10th place finish is beating 32 other people. The first points system ignored wins – a huge part of the sport – the entire purpose is to try to win. The new system goes to the other extreme, placing all importance on winning and none on consistency. This leads to scenarios like 2007, in which Jeff Gordon had over a 300 point lead at the regular season finale turn into a 20 point deficit to Jimmie Johnson (who was over 400 points behind).
NASCAR needs to understand the casual race fan isn’t like the casual baseball fan. If a friend is going to a baseball game and you’re mildly interested you might tag along, that’s not common in racing. The concept of motorsports is polarizing, and making a playoff system for the casual fan to understand by simplifying it down to just wins doesn’t work – and if that’s what you’re gonna do don”t give points for 2nd-43rd.
A proper Chase would reward drivers for being consistent throughout the entire regular season, while giving them incentive to win and putting a premium on doing so.
Currently Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth will be tied for first once the Chase starts, as they each have 4 wins. Thing is, Johnson is first in points, with 8 top fives and 12 top tens, Kenseth is 6th. His 4 wins are the only top fives he has, he’s finished in the top ten 9 times. Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer is 2nd in points without a win, but with 7 top fives and 11 top tens. Bowyer will currently be the 8th seed, with no bonus points, and tied with whoever earns the wild cards.
This system doesn’t make sense. There is no reason to punish consistency in order to reward victories.
At this point you can take my opinion for face value and walk away either agreeing or disagreeing with me. However, if you would like to understand how a system could be put in place to reward both aspects of the sport, while still putting a premium on winning, please, continue reading.
The following system is not something NASCAR would likely consider, as it is a little more complex, and wouldn’t create as clean of a reset of the field for the Chase, but it would better reflect the first 26 races, giving them more importance.
First off, the field will still be 12, following the same Top 10 + 2 Wild Card format as the current system. What would change is how bonus points are awarded when points are reset fir the Chase. The asterisks go into detailed reasoning behind each point.
Proposed Chase Format:
TOP 10 in Points
- 3 Points for each Win *
- 2 Points for each Top 5 *
- 1 Point for each Top 10
- 3 Points for the “Regular Season” Champion **
- 2 Points for “Regular Season” Runner-Up
- 1 Point for 3rd Place Finisher in “Regular Season”
- (-1) Point for each DNF ***
- 3 Points for each Win
- Points will NOT be awarded for Top 5s and Top 10s ****
- Earn points based on points position: 11th Place earns 10 Points, down to 1 Point for 20th****
- (-1) Point for each DNF
* Keep in mind that each win counts as a Top 5 and a Top 10, while a Top 5 doubles as a Top 10. So each win would earn a driver 6 Chase points, each 2nd-5th earns 3, and each 6th-10th earns 1 point. This rewards drivers for their top finishes, while giving more importance on winning.
** Similar to giving home field advantage to a team who wins the Conference in football etc. Rewards drivers for being the best throughout a long season
*** In order to be crowned Champion you must finish races. 10 wins in 1996 couldn’t over come Jeff Gordon’s 7 DNFs as he lost the Cup to Terry Labonte. DNFs reflect the driver and the team. NASCAR is more of a team sport than most people realize, DNFs for mechanical issues or driver error (their own or someone elses) is part of racing and must be accounted for in the Chase.
**** Drivers who earn a Wild Card do so mostly on wins, having lacked the consistency to make the Top 10. They are therefore rewarded for their wins, but penalized for their inconsistency by not getting points for Top 5s and Top 10s. However, someone who earns a Wild Card and finishes 11th was more consistent than someone who did so finishing 20th, so points will be given based on points position. The high value of points is to counter the large gap the drivers will be facing by not earning points for Top 5s and Top 10s and giving incentive to race for a better points position.
Did I lose you? Do you like it, or do you think I’m crazy? Comment or tweet @NASCAR_UST to let me know. For those interested I have given a comparison as to how the Chase field would look if it started this week under my system and the current.
You’ll probably be surprised at what you see, as for some drivers it make an even bigger advantage than before and other seem to have no benefit or loss. This makes sense, as some driver have solidly run top 5 while others have not. You’ll also see that Johnson has had an even better year than our current system shows, which will probably turn many readers off of this idea. I have also provided a couple examples of the Chase reset of previous years.
Current System Proposed System
- Johnson 2,012 (1st in Points) Johnson 2,043
- Kenseth 2,012 (6th) Ky. Busch 2,029
- Harvick 2,009 (4th) Kenseth 2,026
- Ky. Busch 2,009 (7th) Bowyer 2,026
- Edwards 2,003 (3rd) Edwards 2,025
- Biffle 2,003 (8th) Harvick 2,024
- Stewart 2,003 (10th) Stewart 2,017
- Bowyer 2,000 (2nd) Biffle 2,016
- Dale Jr 2,000 (5th) Dale Jr. 2,016
- Ku. Busch 2,000 (9th) Ku. Busch 2,014
- Truex Jr 2,000 (11th) Truex Jr. 2,011
- Kahne 2,000 (12th) Kahne 2,009
- Hamlin 2,012 (8th) Johnson 2,045
- Johnson 2,009 (4th) Biffle 2,044
- Keselowski 2,009 (5th) Keselowski 2,043
- Stewart 2,009 (10th) Hamlin 2,043
- Biffle 2,006 (1st) Dale Jr. 2,042
- Bowyer 2,006 (7th) Stewart 2,040
- Dale Jr. 2,003 (2nd) Kenseth 2,039
- Kenseth 2,003 (3rd) Bowyer 2,031
- Truex Jr 2,000 (6th) Truex 2,025
- Harvick 2,000 (9th) Harvick 2,018
- Kahne 2,000 (11th) Kahne 2,012
- Gordon 2,000 (12th) Gordon 2,009
As you can see with last year’s points, my system would create a true gap between the favorites and underdogs, emulating a Wild Card vs. #1 seed from other sports. There is a clear advantage to wins, as Truex and Harvick have more ground to make up with their lack of a checker flag. DNFs took away Hamlin’s #1 seed with 4 of them in the regular season, while Johnson used his series leading Top 5s and Top 10s to make up for his 5 DNFs.
- Ky. Busch 2,012 (1st) Ky. Busch 2,054
- Harvick 2,012 (5th) Edwards 2,045
- Gordon 2,009 (4th) Johnson 2,043
- Kenseth 2,006 (6th) Gordon 2,041
- Edwards 2,003 (3rd) Harvick 2,038
- Johnson 2,003 (2nd) Kenseth 2,032
- Ku. Busch 2,003 (7th) Newman 2,032
- Newman 2,003 (8th) Ku. Busch 2,029
- Stewart 2,000 (9th) Keselowski 2,018
- Dale Jr 2,000 (10th) Stewart 2,016
- Keselowski 2,000 (11th) Dale Jr 2,013
- Hamlin 2,000 (12th) Hamlin 2,010
2011 is known for being the most exciting championship run in history, with Stewart and Edwards ending in a tie, one decided by Stewart’s 5 wins (all in the Chase). Under my point system Stewart wouldn’t have been so fortunate. During the regular season Stewart was terrible, he said it himself, and while that made his Chase run more thrilling, it’s strange that he won a title after having only 3 Top 5 finishes going into the Chase. By including consistency Stewart starts the Chase 29 points behind Edwards, much more than the 3 points in 2011. Considering Edwards finished the regular season in 3rd with 12 Top 5s and 17 Top 10s, that makes more sense. It wouldn’t have been as exciting, but Edwards would’ve won handily by finishing in the Top 10 in 26 of the 36 races and the Top 5 19 times.
Personally, even winning half the races in the Chase shouldn’t win a Cup if you went 26 races struggling in mediocrity. The Race to the Chase needs to have more importance, its 26 races – 7 months of racing.
2011 also would be the only time we would’ve seen a wild card start the Chase in the Top 10, as Keselowski had 3 wins, and Stewart and Jr both had sub-par seasons
- Johnson 5,060 (4th) Gordon 2,065
- Gordon 5,040 (1st) Johnson 2,058
- Stewart 5,030 (2nd) Stewart 2,044
- Edwards 5,020 (6th) Hamlin 2,038
- Ku. Busch 5,020 (10th) Kenseth 2,033
- Hamlin 5,010 (3rd) Edwards 2,029
- Truex Jr. 5,010 (11th) Ky. Busch 2,028
- Kenseth 5,010 (5th) Burton 2,027
- Ky. Busch 5,010 (8th) Ku. Busch 2,024
- Burton 5,010 (7th) Bowyer 2,016
- Harvick 5,010 (12th) Harvick 2,012
- Bowyer 5,000 (9th) Truex Jr. 2,011
Obviously 2007 under this format creates a variety of differences, and can’t truly be compared directly. Truex loses out by being a Wild Card under the new format, Harvick gets the edge for the top Wild Card by having less DNFs.
I used 2007 as an example because many point to it as the year the Chase lost any integrity it had due to Gordon’s massive point lead and record consistency. Under the new format he holds onto his points advantage, but due to Johnson having 2 more wins than he did, it is a narrow 7 points. Its impossible to determine if this would have changed the outcome of the Champion, due to the change in point values since then. However, it does show that while wins still have a bigger impact, consistency is important to maintain the advantage the wins give you.