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Thompson in Turn 5: Kyle Busch Misses The Chase? Fair Enough

In the aftermath of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 last Saturday night from Richmond, one of the sport’s most prolific winners in Sprint Cup during the 2009 season was eliminated from title consideration with 10 races remaining. In actuality, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch is currently tied with Hendrick Motorsports driver Mark Martin for the most victories in the series to date. But while Martin will begin the Chase for the Championship atop the driver points standings when the series rolls into New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday afternoon, Busch will be on the outside looking in despite four wins.

That the controversial driver will not be Chase-eligible and, worse yet, unable to better his present 13th position in the standings between now and the final race of the season has some fans scratching their heads and calling for an overhaul of the points system. For some, it is just unfathomable that a driver with multiple wins would not be able to race for a championship, especially considering four others – Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle – are eligible without a victory to their credit.

The answer, of course, is while the current points system rewards wins, it also credits the efforts of those who run close to the front every week. So in the case of Kyle Busch, it isn’t about how well he did in the four races he won, but how poorly he did in aggregate for the other 22 Sprint Cup events he competed in that locked him out. Consistency is rewarded under this format, as it should be, and Busch’s overall performance fell short of what a championship year should look like.

With that in mind, fans also have to understand there is no points system that has ever been suggested or adopted in NASCAR that has won universal approval. The current points system has evolved greatly throughout the sport’s history to become what it is today, going through several transformations in the early years. At different times since points were first awarded in 1949, an emphasis was put on the amount of prize money per race, race distances, even qualifying before a more consistent, linear points system that awards points in the same manner for all events on the schedule was developed for use.

So as complicated as today’s system may seem, it is nothing compared to some of the convoluted equations adopted over the years, sometimes changing radically from year to year until 1975, when the basic framework that is still in use today was put in place. Many of the changes at that time were a result of NASCAR’s desire to entice competitors to participate in the entire race schedule, not just those that paid the greatest amount of money or championship points. No one can argue that the system has been successful to that end, as the full-time teams well outnumber the handful of part-time competitors that only attempt a handful of events.

Along those same lines, virtually no one argues that drivers and teams should not be rewarded for showing up and running competitively at all races on an exhaustive 36-race schedule. Distributing points for strong runs and paying competitors for points earned at each race at season’s end is the plum that works to assure that fans see their favorites, whether they attend races in Florida, California, Illinois or New Hampshire.

What amount of emphasis should be put solely on victories is a difficult issue when trying to put a value on wins vs. consistent top finishes, though – a balancing act that the sport has battled with and tweaked on several occasions. The last adjustment came in 2007, when the victor was awarded an additional five championship points for a win to equal the current total of 185. A dominating victory (i.e. – most laps led) can now result in the winning driver scoring 25 points more than the second-place finisher, with the gap between them guaranteed to be a minimum of 10.

NASCAR further addressed complaints that not enough points were being awarded for wins after Kasey Kahne, with five wins at the time, barely qualified for the Chase at Richmond in race No. 26. So in addition to the extra five points awarded for wins in 2007, another 10 bonus points for each victory were added to driver’s totals after the Chase field was set. The adjustment assured that drivers would be recognized for their accomplishments during the regular season, ensuring the ones with the most trips to victory lane would be seeded at the top of the rankings when the playoffs began.

Yet some still believe that even more points should be awarded for wins, with Busch’s Chase exclusion the latest example of a format that’s inherently flawed. But the simple truth of the matter is Kyle Busch has not run well enough to win a championship this year. With only 10 races remaining, he wouldn’t have a shot at the title under any points system in the modern era, no matter what type of formula you put in place. Points for wins have been increased twice in the last five years and the number of Chase-eligible drivers has been increased from 10 to 12, but still, Busch’s resume fell short due to the roller-coaster season he’s experienced behind the wheel of the No. 18. With just nine top-10 finishes offset by 10 of 22nd or worse, there were just too many terrible on-track performances for the 24-year-old to overcome.

So short of just allowing drivers with multiple wins a seed in the Chase, it seems that there is really nothing that can be done with the point system to assure drivers a Chase position that do win, but otherwise log mediocre race results. And no one has came up with an adequate answer as to why they think such a driver will perform any more consistently and compete for the championship over the remaining 10 races than they did throughout the first 26.

It’s important to realize the argument surrounding Busch’s inclusion is nothing new. As far back as 1973, Benny Parsons took home championship honors with one win, though fellow greats David Pearson visited victory lane 11 times while “The King” Richard Petty was second with six. 1996 saw Terry Labonte take the Cup championship with only two wins to Jeff Gordon’s gaudy 10 victories. Then, fast forwarding to 2003, Matt Kenseth etched his name in the record books, winning his championship with only one victory while Newman and his eight race trophies finished sixth in the final driver rankings.

After each of these perceived injustices such as those listed above, there has been a cry for NASCAR to give more weight to victories in their point system. They have attempted to better balance things out, but these problems continue to crop up from time to time… and some people continue to complain.

Well, at some point (and I believe we’ve reached that point) it is time to leave things alone. With additional points already added for victories, and NASCAR augmenting the Chase field from 10 to 12 drivers, anyone that still cannot find themselves into the top 12 in points by race No. 26 in Sprint Cup has not been treated unjustly.

They simply have not raced well enough to be a NASCAR champion.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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