Jimmie Johnson was right. NASCAR's regular-season champ deserves something – anything! – for leading after the first 26 races. Here are a few ideas.
Perception and reality often conflict. Case in point: The perception among a large number of fans is that NASCAR is afraid of shaking up the status quo.
The truth is, the sanctioning body has been relatively progressive – sometimes to its own detriment – over the last 20 years.
In that time frame, NASCAR has expanded into new markets (Dallas, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas, etc.), taken away one or more dates from longstanding tracks (Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Darlington) and embraced new television partners while abandoning others (so long, CBS; hello, FOX).
Of course, one of the biggest changes was the implementation of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which was accepted by some fans and condemned by many others. And on this front, NASCAR has had no issue continuing to tweak the Chase to fit its ever-changing wants and desires – whether it was expanding the field from 10 drivers to 12 or adding two wild card spots.
Which brings us to where we are today and another change NASCAR must address this offseason: Finding a just reward for the driver who scores the most points during the regular season.
Because NASCAR seeds the Chase field based on wins, the number of points a driver accumulates during the regular season is virtually meaningless as long as he finishes 10th or better in the standings.
Yes, wins are important. Yes, winning should be the backbone of what this sport is about. And, yes, how the points are distributed ought to reflect that. But that doesn't and shouldn't make week-to-week consistency irrelevant.
If a driver is good enough to out-race the competition over the span of 26 weeks, that is an accomplishment which deserves merit. And that merit should be more than just a simple handshake for a job well done, which is in essence the case now.
What NASCAR needs to do is strike a balance between rewarding a driver for his regular-season prowess while not compromising the integrity of the Chase and giving said driver too much of an advantage.
Two of the most talked about ways of doing this include awarding bonus points for winning the regular season or giving the driver first choice of pit stalls throughout the Chase. Either of these ideas would be effective solutions and more than fair.
A third idea I've heard is having the No. 1 seed automatically go to the driver who wins the regular season (he would get more bonus points than whichever driver has the most wins). The problem with this notion, however, is it compromises the principle that winning races is more important than collecting points each week. Under this scenario, you would likely see drivers be more conservative in the final weeks of the regular season rather than going all-out for victories and the bonus points that go with them.
But there is another option that should be considered, and this one pertains to qualifying: For the final 10 races of the year, the regular-season champ would have the right to choose when he qualifies.
For example, if it was more advantageous for a driver to go out early in qualifying rather than later, he could select to be one of the first cars out to post a time. Conversely, if the weather forecast is calling for cloud cover later, then it would be to his advantage to be the last car to hit the track. Either way, the option would be up to him each week.
And if NASCAR deems none of the above proposals satisfactory, then do what Jimmie Johnson suggested last weekend and award the regular-season champ a small trophy and T-shirt. For that matter, give them some kitchenware like one would receive as the lovely parting gift on a game show.
After all, anything is better than nothing – and the regular-season champ deserves something.