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Winning isn't everything, but ...

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

I’m all for NASCAR changing its points system, as it seems on the verge of announcing it will do for the 2011 season. The old system was illogical, difficult to understand and didn’t put nearly enough emphasis on winning.

The new system will be logical and easier to explain – that much was made clear Friday at a press conference in Daytona Beach that included three of NASCAR’s top officials. The word “simple” kept coming up as they hinted at what was to come.

But simple isn’t enough. I’m worried that NASCAR’s new way to keep score still won’t put nearly enough emphasis on winning, in which case the whole idea falls flat once again.

The old system is a complicated formula that legend has it was drawn up in 1974 on a napkin at a Daytona Beach bar. The winner got 175 points per race, the last-place finisher got 34 and everyone else got something in between (not including bonus points for leading laps).

It was – and is – a mess. It’s like the NFL’s quarterback rating in that no one can really explain why it is structured the way it is.

“If I’m running 12th, I don’t know how many points that’s worth,” driver Carl Edwards said to race reporters this week. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I should know that.”

The point is that hardly anyone knows what 12th place is worth, which is silly.

The new system likely will contain some sort of “43-to-1” scoring idea. Because a full NASCAR field has 43 cars, the winner would get 43 points, the second-place finisher 42 points and so on.

Now if you stopped there, that would be simpler but still dead wrong.

One of the reasons a NASCAR race can get so boring is that drivers just turn lap after lap with little drama. They try to avoid trouble for most of the race, make a move or two late and too often settle for mediocrity. Race teams mostly don’t want the dreaded “DNF” – the “Did Not Finish” tag that will send you to the back of the points race. They don’t mind at all, say, finishing fourth instead of making an entertaining late dash at No.1.

The “43-to-1” idea on its own does nothing to discourage that behavior. If first place is worth 43 points and second is worth 42, there’s no real point in gambling late to try to win.

That’s where the bonus points come in. To his credit, NASCAR president Mike Helton seems sensitive to this issue. After listening to Helton Friday, I’m convinced the first-place finisher will undoubtedly get a bonus of some sort.

But will it be enough? I’m guessing it won’t be.

I’d give the winner 25 extra points. That’d make the difference between first and second a 26-point swing (68 to 42), which would allow for far more breathless moments at the checkered flag.

I don’t think NASCAR will make that big of a leap, however, because it has long valued consistency above winning.

I’d love to be proven wrong here when this announcement comes, likely Wednesday in Charlotte (and if you’re wondering how NASCAR can change the rules this close to the eve of the 2011 season, well, first of all, it’s NASCAR. Secondly, Helton does truly seem to be trying to get some input from the drivers this week during testing at Daytona).

Said Helton: “The goal for some time has been to create a points system that is easy to understand, easy to explain, easy to be talked about, but also be credible at the end of the season.”

Which is all fine and good – but the winner of each race better be rewarded far more lavishly than he ever has before.

And I’m not talking about an extra fake bottle of champagne to spray on his crew in Victory Lane. I mean bonus points – a bushel of them.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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