A long-running debate in NASCAR is whether or not the current points system rewards winning enough or more emphasis needs to be placed on finishing first.
The current points system dates all the way back to 1974, when the late NASCAR historian Bob Latford drew up a points scheme on a bar napkin in the Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach, Fla. The key element of the points system was that it punished drivers more for a bad finish than it rewarded them for good finishes.
There was a rationale for doing it that way at the time: NASCAR wanted to ensure that drivers made it to every race. Prior to Latford’s system, NASCAR used a weighted system that awarded more points for some races than others. NASCAR used a multiplier to calculate points — at times opting to use race purse, race distance, laps completed and races started, as that multiplier.
As a result, races that were shorter and didn’t pay as well as the bigger events had a hard time drawing full fields. On top of that, back in the days before personal computers and hand-held calculators, the points were fiendishly complicated to compile, and even more difficult for the average fan to understand.
So at the urging of NASCAR founder Big Bill France, Latford came up with the system: 175 points for the race winner at each Sprint Cup race, and a sliding scale of 5-, 4- and 3-point increments separating finishing positions, down to 34 points for last place. In addition, each driver who led a lap got five bonus points and the driver who led the most laps got an additional five bonus points.
Latford’s original system has been tweaked several times along with way, most notably, of course, with the advent of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004. In recent years, NASCAR has increased the amount of points a race winner gets from 175 to 185, with the gap between the winner and runner-up now 15 points.
When the Chase was adopted in 2004, the leader at the end of the 26-race Sprint Cup regular season began the Chase with his points total reset to 5,050. The other nine Chase drivers were reset in five-point increments so that the second-place driver had 5,045 points, while the third-place driver had 5,040, etc.
But the debate has continued about whether victories should be more heavily weighed. The late Charlotte Observer NASCAR beat writer David Poole for several years advocated that whenever a driver won his first race of the season, he would get a 500-point bonus.
That never happened, of course, but starting in 2007, NASCAR did overhaul the Chase points: After 26 races, each of the 12 Chase drivers would receive 5,000 points plus 10 bonus points for each race victory during NASCAR’s regular season.
Still, some race-winning drivers get left out each year, while some winless drivers are rewarded. Jamie McMurrary won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, the two biggest NASCAR races of the year, as well as the fall Charlotte race, yet he failed to make the 2010 Chase. On the other hand, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards all went winless during NASCAR’s regular season, but made the Chase. And Bowyer and Edwards went on to win two races each in the Chase.
Since the Chase was adopted in 2004, a total of 11 drivers have posted double-digit race victory totals. And the ones who’ve won the most races are also the ones who’ve fared best in the Chase. Five-time defending Sprint Cup champ Johnson has won 47 races since 2004, more than double the total of his nearest rival, two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who has won 22 races since 2004.
Behind Johnson and Stewart, the Chase-era victory totals line up as follows: Kyle Busch, 19; Gordon and Edwards, 18; Hamlin, 16; Greg Biffle, 15; Kurt Busch, 14; Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, 11; Harvick, 10.
Of the eight drivers who’ve won the most races in the Chase era, seven of them — everybody but Kyle Busch — have finished first or second in points during that period, suggesting race wins do indeed go a long way toward determining the championship.
With all that in mind, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France has said repeatedly that the sanctioning body likely will change its points structure again in 2011. Whether winning becomes more of a factor remains to be seen, but expect big changes next season.
France is expected to announce the new system Jan. 21, 2011, during winter testing at Daytona International Speedway.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.