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New Points Format Shakes Earth – Or Does It?

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 9 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 this year and earned a berth in the Chase. Now what? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

NASCAR’s era of big changes has faced high levels of criticism from the paying customers. But there is one change that was made for the 2014 season that some say just might be capable of cross-generational appeal.

It’s a tweaking of the points format and it was aimed squarely at a major area of discontent among fans – points racing.

The new format, which increases the value of race victories, just may address that discontent.

Then again, it’s a change that might create as many problems as it solves.

Then then again, it’s a change that may have no real affect on the crowning of series champion.

So it goes in NASCAR these days.

Make no mistake about this: The folks running NASCAR have been in a tough spot for the last 10 years.

In terms of growth – if not outright survival – their sport has been gimping about on wobbly legs. The search for stabilization has resulted in the implementation of a decade-long series of changes to NASCAR’s rules and, even, its culture.

In developing the changes, NASCAR officials have had to walk the line of keeping the sport’s aging, traditional fan base while at the same time, attracting new and younger fans.

That task may well be impossible for a sport like stock car racing.

The car culture which gave birth and then nurtured stock car racing, disappeared in the 1970s and it’s not coming back any time soon. While there is no way that people who are younger than 40 years old today will ever truly understand the impact that that culture had on NASCAR, there is also no way that the old schoolers are ever going to embrace change that gives an inch to the digital generation.

At this historical juncture, change and NASCAR are a volatile mixture.

Enter the new points format. A format under which a race victory virtually assures a team and driver entry into the Chase.

So, winning races this year is clearly more important than it has been in several generations. So say some of the folks vying for those wins.

After finishing third at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend, Brad Keselowski was not celebrating his good points day.

“We know under this system wins are the only things that count,” he said. “Last year you would have said second and thirds were great but this year they are just so-so. We were close.

“It was a good run either way and something to be proud of and hang our hat on. We just know we have to be a little better and move from here.”

Asked if he thought the format change is altering the way drivers drive, if it compelling teasm and drivers to put victories ahead of points, the Team Penske drivers said he thinks so.

“It is a small sample size,” Keselowski said. “I would say probably a little, yeah. It would be unfair to say not at all. When I got out of the car, my teammate and I, Joey Logano, talked about some moves he tried to pull on the restarts, thought he might have or might have done something different under different scenarios. I could say to that effect he would say yes.”

With a victory in hand, drivers will be, in effect, playing with house money until the start of the Chase. That will influence everything they do up to the 10-race playoff begins.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening Daytona 500. As a result, he will almost surely be in this year’s 16-driver Chase.

He was asked after the Phoenix race if having already won a race affected the way he drove at the PIR mile.

“We probably would have went with the same strategy as we had today as far as stretching our fuel mileage,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We were stretching it thin. We would have went with the same strategy regardless of the situation. But it wouldn’t have been as nerve‑wracking. It wasn’t as nerve‑wracking today.

“Normally you’re just biting your fingernails when he says, We’re two laps short, we have to find two laps. The yellows are coming out, you think you’re saving, but you don’t know how much. Today, If we run out, we run out, no big deal. We can gamble with a better conscience.”

At Las Vegas Motor Speedway – site of Sunday’s race – on Friday, Kyle Busch summed up the effect of the new format pretty well. “It changes everything the way the whole year and everybody’s strategy is and what all it’s going to boil down to,” he said. “You never know what you will see next weekend at Bristol. You could have guys racing each other hard for the win and move the other out of the way just to get that win and lock themselves in.”

But the new format new format also brings up some other interesting questions.

For example, with an invitation in hand for the playoffs, will teams and drivers be more interested in experimenting than racing until the start of the Chase? Will they treat non-Chase races as test sessions?

After all, there is no real championship-winning benefit from having more than one victory.

And will the new format completely do away with points racing? To be sure, winning the championship without winning a race remains a very real possibility.

Busch said he is not concerned about not getting a win. He said he is feeling no pressure about getting a win by the start of the Chase.

“I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency at all, to be honest with you in my book,” Busch said. “I thought of it both ways. If I get a win or multiple wins or whatever, great, that’s cool. If I don’t get any wins, as long as I’m in the top-16 in points and there aren’t 16 guys that have wins, then I’m fine, right?”

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson agrees with Busch. He said regular-season victories, while not meaningless, are not the end-all.

Points, he said, may be even more important under the new format, which increases the size of the Chase field by four competitors.

“The fact that points still count for the first cut to make the Chase, essentially you need to be 16th in points, which is more generous than what we have seen in previous years,” Johnson said. “I do agree with Kyle’s mindset. I think that winning late in the season is very important. I guess you still can transfer all the way through by having a great point’s situation which I’m in favor of. I think our series still needs to have that element of consistency and be rewarded for it. But winning becomes most important from Chicago on.”

So, will the new format make race victories more important and also do away with points racing?

The answer: Yes. And no.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 9 2014
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Overra88ted says:

    Miami 2014; during a restart on lap 30 after a caution for “debris on the track”, the 4 drivers eligible for the Gimmick championship are all involved in a multi-car wreck, finishing 37th, 38th, 39th and 41st. With the 2014 Na$Crap Gimmick championship determined by the last scoring loop before the crash.

  • Ken says:

    One aspect of the new format that seems to have been overlooked is the potential of fewer attending and fewer watching the races on TV. After a driver wins a race and is all but assured of making the Chase, the fans of the winning driver doesn’t have to keep watching to see if their driver is going to make the Chase. Their interest will not return until the Chase starts. After that, if their driver gets eliminated, their interest will drop again. I see a downward trend as more and more drivers lock themselves in.