CHARLOTTE, N.C. – NASCAR is replacing the complicated scoring system it has used since 1975 with a more straightforward format.
None of the changes for the 2011 season announced by chairman Brian France at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday came as much of a surprise. NASCAR officials had been briefing teams for almost two weeks on the changes in an effort to give competitors feedback on the direction being taken.
A race winner will receive 43 points under the new system, and the points will decrease down to 1 for the 43rd-place driver. There will be three bonus points for the winner, one bonus point for every driver who leads a lap, and one bonus point to the driver that leads the most laps.
The maximum points available now will be 48.
"Now everyone will know, when a driver is down by 10 points, that he needs to pass 11 more cars to take the lead in the point standings," France said. "We (had) a point system that's hard to describe for ourselves. We just thought this was the perfect time ... (to) simplify it so people can follow."
NASCAR also tweaked the eligibility requirements for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
The top 10 in points after the 26th race of the season will make the Chase field, while the final two spots will be "wild cards" designated for the highest race winners not already eligible. The wild cards will only go to drivers ranked inside the top-20 in points.
If no driver outside the top 10 has any victories, the spots will go to the drivers ranked 11th and 12th in the standings.
Adding the wild card was designed to reward winning, which two-time champion Tony Stewart, the only driver in attendance at the announcement, applauded.
"I think that's a twist that really makes sense," Stewart said.
But what didn't make sense to many, teams and fans alike, was why NASCAR felt the points system was its biggest problem heading into the new season.
NASCAR is stuck in a steady decline in both attendance and television ratings, and not even last year's Chase — the closest since the championship-deciding format was introduced in 2004 — seemed to ignite the dwindling interest.
Although NASCAR made numerous changes last season that dramatically improved competition, fans still found reasons to gripe. And for the three days leading into France's big news, drivers and team owners took their turn weighing in on issues NASCAR needs to address.
"I absolutely think the races ought to be shorter, and I think the season ought to be shorter," said Rick Hendrick, NASCAR's winningest team owner. "It's just so long. If it we had three more months off, I think the fans would be more eager to get back and watch it."
David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports, called on NASCAR to shorten its races so that they fit into a 3-hour broadcast window. Hill argued there's far too many distractions for fans to sit and watch races that stretch four-plus hours.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, called the refusal to shorten races at tracks such as Pocono Raceway, which at 500 miles has long been considered by drivers to be 100 miles too long, "this huge pink elephant nobody wants to talk about."
But he speculated that promises made with handshakes long ago had given many tracks lifetime agreements to host two 500-mile races a year. And the monetary issues, Earnhardt said, made it impossible to shorten a 38-race season that runs from February to November.
"I think that the financial rewards from having the season as it is are too great," Earnhardt said. "It's almost as if each race is a limb that you can't amputate. It's too big a deal to shorten the season. There's tons of money involved and tons of livelihoods involved, and people's careers.
"I don't believe we'll ever see a shorter season. I think in my lifetime we'll see shorter races across the board at 85 percent of the events, but never a shorter season."
Only France bristled at the notion that there are larger issues confronting NASCAR than a need to simplify the points system.
"There's a positive start to the season," he quipped. "Look, we're very satisfied with the most important thing: the level of competition. Obviously, we want to be trending up, not down. And television ratings ... we want to see a lot of things with attendance improve.
"We're 63-years-old. Every sport is going to have periods where, for lots of reasons, you're in a peak or a valley. We're going to have moments where you can select something that's not going well. That's fine. But we are on our course to deliver the most exciting racing in the world, and we're going to get there."
NASCAR president Mike Helton insisted the sport's leadership is hard at work addressing the sport's problems, even if no solutions were offered Wednesday night.
"Everything we do is to make the sport better for the entire community. Everything we don't do doesn't mean we're never going to," Helton said. "We know we have issues to address. I promise you, we haven't spent the last 365 days just working on these topics that we announced. There's a lot of moving parts and pieces that we deal with every day."