August 26, 2005

The Case for the Chase: Is it All About Winning?

(Filed under: Rules)

The Chase for the NASCAR Nextel CupThere's been a lot of discussion about the new rules NASCAR introduced last year that started the "Race for the Chase." Some suggest the rules were introduced to limit the possibility that a driver with only one win could win a championship (ahem, Matt Kenseth, 2003), though I think it had more to do with building excitement into the season to boost ratings.

A little background for those unfamiliar: It used to be that the NASCAR Cup champion was determined each year strictly by points. You earned points based on how you finished each race, with 5 bonus points for leading a lap in a race, and 5 more bonus points for leading the most laps in a race. Simple system. Apparently too simple. So last year they started a new system where after the first 26 races only the top 10 drivers would be eligible for the championship. They redistribute the points for the top 10 and duke it out in the last 10 races to see who wins. Drivers outside the top 10 in points, well, they still race for the win and to see where they end up in points, but the championship is out of reach.

Basically what it does is give the season a major focus: Drivers need to be in the top 10 in points after 26 races (there is a 400 point loophole: drivers within 400 points after 26 races are in, regardless of whether or not they're in the top 10). Then they focus on those last 10 races to win the championship.

It's an odd idea, but kind of cool. It helps break up a really long season and gives you something more to focus on. I think it immensely helps TV ratings by keeping interest going. I've talked about it before, and frankly it's brought me back into NASCAR more than I used to be.

Lately I've noticed chatter on a few different blogs about the importance of winning races. One columnist suggested NASCAR should give a bonus of 500 points to a driver who wins their first race of the year. He also recently explored this season and the emphasis on winning. Another blogger complained about the chase set up because it doesn't put more emphasis on winning.

They all assume one thing: Winning a race is the most important thing.

I think that's wrong. The old points system and the new chase set up both value consistency, and I think that's huge. In every other sport winning matters. Why? Because you only have two options: win or lose. In racing there can be 40 teams and winning is a heck of a lot harder. You should be rewarded for doing well, even if you don't always win.

That's what happened to Matt Kenseth in 2003. He only won one race. But the rest of the season? Mr. Consistency: 25 top tens in a 36 race season. He only finished outside the top 20 four times, with only two DNFs. Wow. He may not have won many races, but he kicked everyone's butt.

I think winning's big, but you also have to give props to the 39 other guys out there each week. Chances are they're not going to win on a given Sunday. It's not a 50/50 deal, it's a 1/40. With those kind of odds, teams need something more to shoot for than just the victory. And that's the championship.

It's also kind of funny that people who claim the victory is all that matters also don't like fuel milage races. At Michigan when fuel came into play the driver who won wasn't the guy who played it safe and kept an eye on the points. The winning team took a gamble and went for the victory. The result? What some people called some boring racing. If you're going to value the victory so much, to the point of making it worth 500 points, you'll be having teams do all sorts of stuff to try and win, and it definitely won't always be on the track action. It'll be so-called boring stuff like fuel mileage.

And if you want the victory to be more important, how about lobbying NASCAR to make first place worth more points? Not something ridiculous like 500 points for a first win, but something simple and consistent. Make a victory worth 50 points more than second place, not just 10 points more.

Posted by kevin at August 26, 2005 12:37 PM

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I hated the new championship point system, mostly because the wrong guy won last year. In my mind, consistancy over the season means they ran good MOST of the races, as opposed to those who ran great for a couple/three races.

One of the reasons NASCAR went that way was to avoid having the championship locked in 3-4 races before the season was over. WHich was boring for the fans. Boring if the guy in front wasn't your driver.

NASCAR does try to keep the 11th thru 43rd races motivated by making 11th place worth a million bucks.

Posted by: MsShadow at August 30, 2005 2:54 PM