The Frontstretch: What's So Horrible About A Winless Champion? by Kurt Smith -- Thursday September 2, 2010

Go to site navigation Go to article

What's So Horrible About A Winless Champion?

Kurt Smith · Thursday September 2, 2010


Before going away on vacation, I was going through Jayski one lovely morning to read commentary from Citizen Journalists that I like.

Two articles in particular got my attention this morning. The first was a diatribe from Steve Kaminski of Michigan Live, suggesting to NASCAR that regardless of how it is achieved, a win should guarantee a driver’s entry into the Chase playoff. The other was a fearful piece from Jeff Owens at Fox Sports, pointing out that Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart could very well win a championship without ever visiting victory lane.

While not a supporter of the Chase, Kaminski feels that it is an injustice to exclude Jamie McMurray from the playoffs following his Daytona and Indianapolis wins. He also believes that to make the Chase more exciting, then more drivers should have a shot. Kaminski rightly appreciates how difficult winning a race is, and because of it, a winner should have a crack at being a champion.

No one is happier for Jamie for his wins than I am, but those are only two wins, one of which was in a race that, since the restrictor plate was mandated, hasn’t always been won by legendary drivers. Even given the gravity of the two events where McMurray was victorious, prestigious races don’t count in the standings for more than other events. Nor should they. Imagine that can of worms being opened.

As far as the difficulty of winning a race, sure it’s difficult. But racking up enough points to be a champion, or even making the Chase, is far more difficult than just winning one race, and to give Juan Pablo Montoya an opportunity to win the title because he drives Watkins Glen better than everyone else wouldn’t be any fairer.

And really, someone who dislikes the Chase, as Kaminski apparently does, should know that just handing more drivers a chance at a championship is part of the reason most people dislike the Chase in the first place. I don’t know if Kaminski would support a 15-driver Chase, but I doubt it.

Jeff Gordon is one of a couple of drivers that have a shot at taking the championship despite being winless this season.

Jeff Owens believes that a winless champion would be a “black mark” on the sport. That the controversy would be “practically endless”. That NASCAR would have “some big fires to put out”. Grab your canned food and head to the basement.

To his credit though, Owens includes a few quotes from drivers, who almost universally wouldn’t give two bowel movements about whether they visited victory lane all season or not if they were hoisting the Sprint Cup.

And that really is the crux of the matter. NASCAR implemented the Chase in hopes of adding excitement to the championship battle. Despite that the sanctioning body expressed a desire to make winning more important, the Chase does nothing of the sort, and in fact places a premium on not risking a wreck for a win.

It is one thing to make individual races more important, and another to emphasize a championship battle. The two weren’t mutually exclusive, but the Chase made it so, hurting the importance of individual races. If a driver had a choice between winning a race or making the Chase, most of them would probably prefer making the Chase.

There is nothing wrong with rewarding consistency, except apparently to marketing types that believe in hype over excellence. A 36-race season with the driver with the most points being crowned champion nearly ensures that the best driver will indeed become the champion, and it will also separate flashes in the pan from real contenders. Juan Pablo Montoya did not race like a champion for the first 26 races last year (he also didn’t win any races), but for a couple of Chase events it was hardly inconceivable that he could become a Sprint Cup champ.

It did not matter that Matt Kenseth only won one race in 2003. What mattered was that over ten months of racing, week in and week out, Kenseth collectively outperformed everyone else. A driver who finishes in the top five every week for ten weeks is performing better than a driver with two wins and six DNFs. That’s why Ryan Newman was sixth in the standings—yes, sixth—despite having eight wins in 2003. He wasn’t as consistent. Which means he wasn’t as good.

I’m speaking anecdotally, but no NASCAR fan I know had a problem with how Kenseth won the last Winston Cup in 2003. I doubt anyone would have seriously objected even if he had a total of zero wins, or at least had been outraged enough to justify a playoff system that a lot of people still don’t like.

By definition, demanding wins from a champion would require a points system that makes it impossible for a driver to win a title without winning a race. But Kenseth did win a race in 2003, and if winning one race should be enough to make the playoffs, it would not only be possible but even more likely in the Chase era for a champion to be crowned with only one win again.

A driver that wins a race is great. A driver that scores more points than anyone else for 36 races, or even ten races today, is a champion. To win a championship, to even make the playoffs, a driver ought to prove himself as the best overall at bump and run, S-curves, tunnel turns and drafting. Kenseth did that in 2003. The Chase doesn’t demand near that level of consistency, nor does getting to it, but winning it is still harder than winning a single race, whether it’s done with victories or not.

McMurray will always have a Daytona win and a Brickyard win. That doesn’t put him in the same league with Jeff Gordon this year. It also doesn’t mean drivers and teams are going to work any less hard at a Daytona 500 win.

It’s like the old joke—what do you call someone who graduates at the bottom of his class in medical school? Doctor. A winless champion is still a champion.

Contact Kurt Smith

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
NASCAR Mailbox: A ‘Normal’ Saturday And A Valuable Lesson
Beyond the Cockpit: Tony ‘The Sarge’ Schumacher
Open Wheel Wednesday: Controversial Moves, Long Beach Crowds, and Being a Fuddy Duddy
The Frontstretch Five: Pleasant Surprises of 2014 So Far
IndyCar Driver Profile: Takuma Sato
Beyond the Cockpit: Tommy Baldwin on Owning His Team, Hall of Fame and the Number Seven


©2000 - 2008 Kurt Smith and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Chris in TX
09/03/2010 12:37 AM

Kurt, this is definitely one of those “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” sort of topics.

The drivers and teams all start the year knowing what the rules are, and just like every other job in the universe, the boss defines what a “good job” is. In Cup, right now, Winning is not a requirement. Not-screwing-up enough to be 12th in points after 26 races is better than winning, no matter what happens in the last 10 races.

My preference would be: add some more points to first (not those you-get-em-later points)…like, 30 more points. In addition, everyone from, say, 21st on back, gets the same points. This way, winning puts you ahead, but a really bad day doesn’t needlessly punish you.

Bottom line: All merit systems should reward desirable behavior, and punish undesirable behavior. Right now, this point system rewards what I consider to be undesirable behavior (stroking), and punishes desirable behavior (racing). But, the drivers have to play by the rules they’ve got. Wow it took me alot of words to more or less agree with you. :)

Kevin from PA
09/03/2010 07:45 AM

Agree with Chris. The current point system actually rewards drivers for not taking risks. If you were a driver, would you A) run full out for an extra 5 – 10 points at the risk of crashing or B) give up 5 – 10 points and just cruise along.

Blame NASCAR, the owners, sponsors, etc. But point racing for the Chase has become more important than winning.

Even worse making the Chase seems to have more prestige for a driver’s career than winning most races (Daytona and a very few others excluded). Everyone will know and remember who was in the 2010 Chase for many years; probably very few will remember who won a race in May – August.

Bill B
09/03/2010 08:27 AM

Here is a question that people should think about; Driver A wins 18 races and DNFs the other 18. Driver B comes in second for all 36 races. Who should be champion?

How you answer this question will determine how the chase and point system should be structured.

09/03/2010 09:01 AM

It is a POINTS championship not a win championship. How many times has the driver who won the most races won the championship? It would be great if a driver with no wins got the championship. Give the driver who wins the most races a trophy, similar to the Rocket Richard trophy. Oops, that would cost more money. Not a chance.

Bill B
09/03/2010 09:41 AM

Here is another fallacy that NASCAR fans espouse… The fact that a driver will “settle” for 2nd. In many cases settle means “the driver wasn’t willing to pull a Carl Edwards at Kansas and try so hard that there is a 99% probability they will wreck”. Is that what people want – win or wreck? Any driver will tell you that some races you don’t have a car capable of winning. So if you have a tenth place car do fans expect you to push it to finish first or wreck out trying?
I am someone who believes every driver wants to win every week and they will do their best, short of stupidly wrecking, to win if there is a probably chance they can. There is no doubt that points racing occurs but the fact that so many fans imply that getting the best finish you can is somehow a bad thing baffles me. When there are only two teams going head to head (like in football) winning and losing is a black and white proposition. When there are 43 teams competing there are a lot more grays in the mix.

09/03/2010 01:54 PM

Here’s more reasons for the decline in TV viewers:
Race and Commercial Breakdown of the 2010 Bristol Race: For those of you NASCAR fans that like stats and love to hate commercials, or wonder how often your driver was focused on, here is the breakdown for Saturday’s race. ESPN on ABC was the broadcast team for this event.
Start time to record race/commercial periods: 7:30 PM
End time to record race/commercial periods: 10:30 PM
Total minutes: 180
Minutes of race broadcast: 136
Minutes of commercials: 44
Total number of commercials: 113
Total number of companies or entities advertised: 68
Number of missed restarts: 0 Although one restart occurred right as broadcast returned from commercial
Number of ‘mystery cautions’ (debris not shown): 1
Total race brdcst time 136 Total comm. brdcst time 44
Number of times selected drivers were focused on:
Kevin Conway – 15
Jeff Green – 18
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 46
Kurt Busch – 47
Joey Logano – 49
Brad Keselowski – 50
Jeff Burton – 56
Kasey Kahne – 59
Greg Biffle – 61
Clint Bowyer – 86
Jamie McMurray – 94
Jimmie Johnson – 134
Kyle Busch (race winner) – 219
See full rundown and other races at

09/03/2010 09:23 PM

I’m a supporter of winning being rewarded much more than it presently is. A few of the examples those who favor consistency are using are a bit deceitful in my opinion.

Comparing McMurray and Gordon isn’t exactly fair. Gordon has been
competitive for several more wins than McMurray and has been generally more dominant and has led more laps this season than the vast majority of
non-winners do. Gordon is historically someone who cares more about winning individual races than points racing, or else there is a very
good shot he would have won the 1996 championship at the very least. McMurray does not deserve in over Gordon. However, there are 12 chasers, and as such, there are several chasers who are WAY more mediocre than Gordon.

Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart (this year), and ESPECIALLY Carl Edwards strike me as drivers who are exploiting the flaw in the points system by collecting eighth place finish after eighth place
finish while not being seriously competitive for wins or even leading
laps very often, yet all except Bowyer are chase locks. Carl Edwards
hasn’t even led a lap outside of pit stop exchanges ALL SEASON and is a chase lock. I find that kind of disgusting myself, especially because Edwards is a lock in part because he wasn’t given a 100-point penalty or equivalent at Atlanta. I don’t believe McMurray deserves in over Gordon, but I do think a more reasonable points system would place him ahead of those four who haven’t run all that hot most of the season. Comparing McMurray to Gordon is just setting him up for failure. But he runs WAY better on a regular basis than those four, and certainly belongs in over Bowyer, but Bowyer is essentially a lock despite a mere four top fives, which isn’t all that good… McMurray leads in poles, and has more wins and top fives than SEVEN chasers, and I see top fives as the main model of consistency myself. If he was only ahead of two or three chasers in top fives, maybe I wouldn’t see it as bad. But he has more top fives than half the chasers. No, his season hasn’t been better than Gordon’s, but I’d take his season over any of the winless chasers; I think he’s been more competitive on a regular basis than any of them. And the fact that losing hurts more than winning helps causes this.

In that ridiculously dramatic and completely unreasonable example (18
wins/18 DNFs vs. 36 second places), I reluctantly agree the non-winner would deserve the championship. But that’s an extreme example that does not occur in real life. What happens in real life is drivers are rewarded for collecting mediocre 11th-20th place finishes
due to bad setups or whatever (RCR is EXPERT at this) and not to take
any risks to avoid DNFs. I think the fact that all 43 positions score points causes this problem, and I would only give the top 25 finishers points, to keep modifieds off-the-track (thereby preventing ridiculous payback like Edwards at Atlanta), and have larger gaps between top five and top ten positions. Nobody is saying consistency shouldn’t matter, but this particular points system is ridiculously biased towards consistency where almost by default you could just determine the champion by best average finish over 36 races. Other series like Champ Car and IndyCar had way better balances between winning and consistency; consistency still mattered and the championship didn’t necessarily go to the driver with the most wins, but the top winners would at least be reasonably up there.

1996 is the best example of why this points system is horrible. Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon had the same number of top fives and top tens but Terry won the title with eight fewer wins simply because he was collecting 11th-20th place finishes in his bad races while Gordon was in the 30s… I think that’s a little insane. If the two drivers are close in top fives and top tens, and one has WAY more wins, the latter should be the champion (1985 and 1996 are the two titles that in my mind clearly went to the wrong guy). Years like 2003 I’m not as sure. Newman had way more wins than Kenseth but was way less consistent (Kenseth wasn’t even THAT consistent by historical standards). I don’t think either were really deserving, and Kenseth kind of just won by default.

While I certainly wouldn’t endorse something like MATT’s dream points system (1-500, 2-200, 3-100, etc…), which is way too extreme, a compromise points system like this would work better and give you a better chase:

1. 200
2. 160
3. 130
4. 115
5. 100
6. 90
7. 80
8. 70
9. 60
10. 50
11. 45
12. 40
13. 35
14. 30
15. 25
16. 22
17. 19
18. 16
19. 13
20. 10
21. 8
22. 6
23. 4
24. 2
25. 1
Pole – 10
2 points for each 10% led in a race

Using this points system, McMurray is in and Bowyer is out, as I think it should be. I don’t argue Gordon belongs in the chase. But Bowyer? What has he done all season?

Leading laps should be rewarded more than they are also, and you shouldn’t just get points for leading on a pit stop exchange. Drivers like Mark Martin in 1996 or Dale Earnhardt in 1997 or Jeff Gordon this year who went winless but contended to win a bunch of races deserve a high points spot. It’s instances more like Harvick in ’08 that annoy me more; he had zero wins, seven top fives, and less than 200 laps led and finished top five in the points? That’s just wrong. If a guy like Gordon wins the title this year, I won’t have a problem with it because he runs well every week and actually competes. If a stroker like Edwards won the title without winning a race or even leading a lap outside of pit-stop exchanges, I’d cry foul.

09/03/2010 09:27 PM

Correction. I meant to write:

“No, his season hasn’t been better than Gordon’s, but I’d take his season over any of the OTHER winless chasers”

Chris in TX
09/03/2010 09:34 PM

Bill B: While I don’t think that we need 43 Ricky Bobbys out there (If you ain’t first, you’re last), there are plenty of teams that base their 26-race strategy on going-conservative. Obviously no driver shows up at the track with a desire to finish not-first. Hell, racing go-karts at 11 years old I never remember being happy finishing second.

But, everything is risk vs. reward. I don’t want them to win-or-wreck-trying. I want the penalty for a really bad day (25th or worse) to not be so punitive that it is better to take no risks at all to improve your finish. As you said, shades of gray.

09/08/2010 07:44 PM

Clint Bowyer vs Jeff Gordon 2010 (25 races)
Top 5: 4 v 10
Top 10: 13 v 13
Top 15: 16 v 17
DNF: 2 v 2
Avg Start: 15.6 v 11.6
Avg Finish: 15.0 v 12.1
Laps Led: 130 at 10 tracks v 813 at 14 tracks
Ran in the top 5: 20 v 23
Positive Pass Differential: 14 races v 12
Points: 3066 v 3366

Statistically, both are similarly consistent. Gordon has the edge only in top 5s and led laps.

I can’t pull up stats for ‘contending at the end’ but Bowyer has been a legitimate contender and/or been leading near the end in at least 4 races that I can recall. A couple lucky breaks and Bowyer would be right up there with Gordon in points and have more wins … Gordon gets the press when he contends, but Bowyer gets virtually ignored in large part due to DW’s animosity.

In summary: Bowyer deserves to be in the chase because he earned it – just as Gordon earned his 2nd place standing.

Contact Kurt Smith