Vito Pugliese · Wednesday March 23, 2011
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season got off to a swimmingly strong start with an unpredictable Daytona 500, a good race at Phoenix, and a palatable Las Vegas event. Bristol was a bit underwhelming, what with the 13 days of hype leading up to it leaving many nonplussed over a race that has turned into a shadow of its former self. Credit either the new track layout or Kyle Busch’s dominance, this Sunday’s event was a snoozer for many; however, I’m told it dealt a bigger blow than you’d think to many expected Chase contenders. Most are quick to point out that those off to a slow start might be sunk already, what with the new point system that has been implemented for 2011.
I know, I know; we’re only four races deep, why start the obsessing all ready over the Sprint to the Chase of the Cup…or whatever they’re calling it these days? But every race does count (for the first 26 at least) towards the title, and points earned or lost in race four are every bit as valuable as those in race 25.
So what’s the point(s)?
Well for instance, Denny Hamlin, last year’s championship Cinderella finished 33rd on Sunday, dropping him to 17th in points. Jeff Gordon was on top of the world two weeks ago following Phoenix after snapping 66-race winless streak, but a rough wreck at Vegas coupled with a lackluster afternoon in Thunder Valley has the original Four-Time sitting in 19th place in points. Further down the list we find Jamie McMurray, who suffered his third consecutive sub-20th place finish at Bristol; the feel-good story of 2010 is currently buried 26th in the standings. Under the new point system, we’re told these bumps in the road are supposed to virtually guarantee a wasted season that leaves one unable to get back into title contention, as poor finishes are not as easy to overcome as before. But at least the points are easier to calculate, right?
Turns out other than making you use your calculator less, this whole points change has been much ado about nothing – which unfortunately seems to surround much of the conversation centered on the method meant to crown the champion of our sport. For despite all the talk of the new points format, despite the talk about digging your hole too deep too early comebacks will still exist, meaning the end result won’t change much – if any – by the time things are reset in September.
For example, let’s take a look at Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer, two of 2010’s Chase contenders who finished sixth and 10th in the points, respectively. Right now, they reside 23rd and 24th in the season standings after both have endured their fair share of bad luck. Biffle has amassed 86 points to date, while Bowyer – following a late-race DNF wallop at Bristol – has a whopping 84. That might seem miles away from leader Kyle Busch in the lead at 150 points, the kind of deficit that would require Kyle takes a couple of races off to erase – yet it isn’t all that much different that the standings a year ago.
That is also not taking into consideration those ahead of them who are likely to stumble a bit this year, or have not yet hit a rough patch like the perennial points players. David Gilliland is barely hanging onto 22nd place in points, largely by way of his shockingly impressive third-place showing in the Daytona 500, while David Ragan (20th) has had a penchant the past couple of seasons of failing to meet expectations. Bobby Labonte’s No. 47 team is coming of age, but I have a hard time believing they are going to be able to match Biffle and the Roush Fenway monolith over the long haul of the season. The biggest surprise, however, may come at RCR, as one of their own – Jeff Burton or Bowyer – may be displaced by Paul Menard, who finally has the opportunity at a competitive (and stable) ride for the first time in his Cup career.
Take a look back to last March following the fourth race in Atlanta last year that saw some notable names in the back of the point standings pack; chief among them, Carl Edwards. Edwards’ No. 99 was 20th in points at –209 exiting the ATL, but following Richmond was in The Chase, having battled back up to fourth by the end of that race – and before the points reset. With the Chase point standing qualification being limited to the top 10, and another two “wild card” spots reserved for the most wins within the top 20, that means your final field won’t look a whole lot different than it has in recent years.
Want a breakdown? You’ll have Jimmie Johnson and two other guys with a legitimate shot at it, paired with the bottom three or four teams who really have no business at all being considered title contenders squeaking through. That’s right; some of these teams will make a comeback, they’ll be assigned the task of a title competition against NASCAR’s better judgment and the inconsistency that has haunted them all year will haunt them down a 10-race stretch in the postseason.
Average finish, after all, is still where it’s at; with the new points system, that will be emphasized even further. The winner of a race now receives 43 points, and last place gets but one. There is one bonus point for leading a lap, another point for the most led, plus three more if you win a race (why not just make it 48 to avoid the confusion – oh that’s right, because it’s easier to figure out this way…), leaving the total maximum point swing at 47 points – last place getting just two percent of what the maximum first-place points are worth. In previous years, of course, there was a maximum one-race change of 161, but 43rd place would receive 17.4 percent of the maximum first-place points by comparison.
So if anything, it’s easier to catch up now should the points leader falter; and even then, the final two spots will be awarded to those with the most wins. So if you’re the kind of driver who will win a few, but blow up and wreck a lot (i.e., Jamie McMurray), you’ll be in a good position to make The Chase come September. But what will prove itself out over the course of the next six months is the same as it has always been; if you run well every week and happen to win a race or two, you will have a legitimate and well-earned opportunity to contend for the championship. If you don’t… well, nobody talks about you and still get to race every week.
So when the conversation returns to all this babbling about the new championship system and how it is going to dramatically alter the landscape of the championship….what’s the point?
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