Summer Bedgood · Wednesday September 28, 2011
It goes without saying, but NASCAR deals with a lot of criticism on a weekly — no, daily! — basis, and sometimes rightfully so. After all, they make questionable calls without explaining them to fans, they tend to show favoritism without saying why, and go directly against peoples’ wishes when it comes to issues like the schedule and rules changes their constituents openly resist.
However, I’m a believer in giving credit where credit is due, and I think NASCAR is in line for some praise. Prior to the start of the 2011 season, the sport announced several changes to the way the points would be structured, earned, and set. That garnered a mixed response from fans and the media, somewhat expected on how, exactly they would work out.
Well, now that we are winding ever closer to this Fall’s conclusion, I would have to say that those adjustments have turned out to be a success. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at how these battles for the championship, across all three of the sport’s top divisions have played out so far.
First off is my personal favorite, the “one series only” rule change, where NASCAR only allowed a driver to run for points in one of the three national series. While the part-time, Sprint Cup regulars have managed to still dominate the other divisions, winning the majority of races we’ve still seen a handful of full-time participants reach Victory Lane this season in those leagues. You have three Nationwide-only drivers and five Truck Series-only drivers earning at least one victory to date; those are promising totals considering how overbearing the Cup guys have been in recent years. I can’t really say for certain that’s a direct result of the changes, but either way, it certainly is an added bonus!
With that said, the new point systems have clearly done their part in bringing attention to those developing in each series. Regardless of the sometimes skewed TV coverage, the championship battle is all about the drivers competing full-time in that division – no one else registers. Even when Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick is running away from the field, the performance of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. or Austin Dillon becomes much more relevant to their respective series, hogging up some much-needed TV time. Considering that hasn’t been the case for several seasons, these adjustments brought some attention back to the people that deserve it.
Could each series still use some work? Well, sure! But the changes, even if it they can be confusing at times, have given full-time drivers something to fight for down the stretch. And that, in itself is enough to prove how things are moving in the right direction.
Speaking of confusion, another change NASCAR made was mathematical, making the point system easier to understand for both drivers and fans alike. Well, they succeeded; the only people I’ve seen who think it is more confusing than before are those who dislike any change in the first place.
Beginning this season, across all three series, NASCAR implemented a new “43 to 1” point system, which is exactly what it sounds like. A first-place finish gets 43 points, second place 42, etc. While it did take some getting used to, as a 20-point deficit this season is very different than the same deficit last year, it is altogether simpler. For instance, Kevin Harvick is currently seven points behind leader Tony Stewart in the standings, which is equal to around seven positions. It’s literally that simple; no complicated number crunching or burning calculators. Even a math-challenged writer like me can figure out what a driver needs to do to gain some points, and with simplicity, everyone wins!
Oh yeah, NASCAR made some changes for winners, too. But this adjustment was a little more complicated. In addition to the top 10 drivers in points locking themselves into the Chase, a longtime automatic following the 26th race of the season in Richmond, the two drivers outside the top 10, but inside the top 20, with the most wins would get into the Chase via a “wild card” slot. Originally, I didn’t think this rule change would be that big of a deal, since I doubted anyone outside of the top 10 could truly compete for a championship.
Apparently, I didn’t account for Brad Keselowski going on a summertime hot streak, winning three races and effectively earning himself a spot in the playoff. While his fellow “wild card” driver Denny Hamlin is still hanging out in 12th, Keselowski is third in points, only 11 behind the leader and is considered by many to be a darkhorse candidate to win it all. And without the “wild card?” Under the original system (2004-06), the best Keselowski could have done was 11th.
Luckily, these tweaks to the points have taken place in a year where parity rules in NASCAR, especially in the Sprint Cup Series. There have been 16 different winners in 28 races, several competitive finishes, and what is shaping up to be a barnburner of a championship in that division – along with Nationwide and Trucks, too. Rising TV ratings and steady attendance in the last few races have been promising, for sure, and we can only hope they will continue to get better this Fall.
If there is one thing I know about NASCAR fans, though, it’s that they are fantastic at finding things to complain about. Whether it’s too many fuel mileage finishes, “boring” races, or the Chase itself (really, guys? Still?!) they can always find something. But that’s OK; in this sport, criticism keeps NASCAR on their toes in trying to make the rules the best that it can be. Yes, they sometimes try too hard but at least those complaints force them to put in the effort.
In this case, the adjustments they made should be applauded. For once, they took a gamble and it worked, creating a system that’s easier to understand and which cultivates competitive point battles that will last all the way until the checkered flag at Homestead. Unpredictability gives fans a reason to tune into the remaining few races of the season, intrigue existing amongst all three series, and for that don’t we at least owe NASCAR a pat on the back?
Even if you don’t agree, I’ll say it myself. Good call, NASCAR! Let’s hope these changes create excitement for the next several years to come.
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