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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Should the Regular Season Points Leader Be Rewarded?

NASCAR’s playoff format has been controversial since its inception in 2004. Love it or hate it, the new Chase has done a tremendous job at attracting a younger generation and providing a level of excitement that could go unseen amidst a dominant season by one driver.

However, tradition is still important in a sport with a large fan base consisting of people 50 years of age and older. While tradition might not be as important for young fans, who largely just want to see something exciting happen, it is still important to drivers and teams.

But with a playoff format, most sports usually put an emphasis on the regular season champion of either a division or conference. It’s pretty much common sense. Be the best during the regular season, why not have at least a bye during the first portion of the playoffs?

In NASCAR, since the Chase began in a progressive move by NASCAR executives, there has never been a reward for the regular season champion. It is a flaw that has been discussed by fans thoroughly and passionately. Arguably, it could have been the difference maker in several key championship battles over the past 11 seasons of 10-race playoffs in NASCAR.

Q: Jeff Gordon spoke about the regular season points leader being rewarded during the pre-race broadcast. Should that happen, and if so, what should the reward be? – James L., Memphis

A: Gordon’s point is absolutely important to catch the eye of keen sports fans. If you look at the NFL, the NFC and AFC (the two conferences in the NFL) regular season champions have a first-round bye. While they do not play in the first round of the playoffs, it provides extra rest time prior to round two.

Giving a first-round bye in NASCAR would be difficult, but it is certainly doable.

A perfect scenario would be having the regular season champion — with or without a win to lock into the Chase — have a pass for the first two rounds. That leaves that driver six races to try out different things with less pressure on their shoulders heading into the final four events of the season.

With a two-round bye, the regular season champion will be relaxed heading into the Chase, something that could be both a positive and a negative. The positive side of it is that the team will be trying setups contrasting that of their teammates, making the most out of those six races in preparation for the Round of 8.

Last year’s regular season champion, Kevin Harvick, narrowly made it to the Round of 12 in the Chase. Finishing 42nd at Chicagoland Speedway and 21st at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he sat 23 points behind the 12th-place cutoff. However, in a must-win situation, he earned a victory at Dover International Speedway during the final contest of the Round of 16, leading 355 of 400 laps en route to a triumph.

Harvick went on to narrowly make it into the Round of 8 in the Chase. With a runner-up finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it appeared as if he’d ease into the next portion of the playoffs. Then after back-to-back finishes outside of the top 15, he held on to

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)
Kevin Harvick, despite doing very well in the regular season, has come close to missing the championship race in the past couple of years. (Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

advance to the penultimate round of the playoffs.

Rewinding to 2014, the first year of the current playoff format, Gordon was the regular season champion by 21 markers over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Did it mean anything for Gordon to rack up three wins, eight top fives, 17 top 10s through the first 26 races? Evidently, the only item on the checklist that mattered was his first victory of the year at Kansas Speedway. After that, all that mattered was staying in the top 30 in the standings, something easily feasible for one of the sport’s most dominant drivers on the year.

Gordon sat seventh in the standings after Loudon, a mere 15 points ahead of the cutoff for the Round of 12. Once a pair of runner-up results at Charlotte (Round of 12) and Martinsville Speedway (Round of 8), he appeared to be headed to Homestead-Miami Speedway to compete for a title.

But that wasn’t the case.

Gordon missed the final round of the Chase that year. He ended the season sixth in points in a year featuring 1,083 laps led, along with a series-best average finish of 10.4 and 23 top 10s.

One can’t help but think what would have happened to Gordon had he received a bye for the first round of the Chase that year. Would things have been different? Probably not. However, it is something that sits in the back of one’s mind while evaluating NASCAR’s current Chase format.

In the midst of Jimmie Johnson’s streak of five straight Sprint Cup titles, he never led the regular season standings come Richmond in September. He was close on multiple occasions, including being on top of the standings for 23 of the first 26 races during the 2006 season. But that year, he lost the points lead to Matt Kenseth, the only driver within 333 points of Johnson after the penultimate race at Fontana before the cutoff.

While the Chase format can be questioned, there is no argument that NASCAR has done a fantastic job at appealing to a younger generation. The current Chase is wild, featuring heart-warming moments, such as Earnhardt, Jr. hugging Jamie McMurray at Dover last October after an amazing on-track battle to determine who advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

The Chase has even caused drivers to get angry at each other, creating rivalries for the first time in years. When Matt Kenseth attacked Brad Keselowski at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2014, it made the highlight reel across America.

Let’s face it: That would certainly not have happened with the lackluster original format of racking up the points after 36 races.

As NASCAR continuously looks to improve the Chase, it’s not the format that needs to be changed this time. Instead, it’s giving the regular season champion what they deserve, and that’s at least a bye for the first round of the Chase, still (obviously) having to compete in those three events.

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kb

I did hear Jeff speak to that idea, but I say no. Yes, yes…I know getting rid of this mess is the only way to have sanity and fairness and truth back into what crowns a true Champ and folks tell me continually to my head out of my ass, as it will never happen. I always hold out hope, if not for the sake of logic, sanity and truth! Doing this is just another lipstick on a pig band aid. It says you are worthy, regarding the other guys, they don’t really deserve it, it is our welfare and YOU JOE BLOW WERE THE BEST DRIVER UP TILL WE STARTED OUR NONSENSE AND YOU HAD A BAD BREAK…we will let you into the WELFARE RESET CLUB! What message is that sending? Not a good one, I think. My two cents. Again, these guys race together every week, at the end of 36 weeks, there is no mistake who should be “The Season Long Champ”. Until it is back to that, all other ideas are bogus and will continue to cheapen what means a “Season Long Champ”.

Bill B

“NASCAR’s playoff format has been controversial since its inception in 2004. Love it or hate it, the new Chase has done a tremendous job at attracting a younger generation…”

WTF!!!???
Attendance and ratings keep trending down since the advent of the chase. I haven’t seen any number showing an increase in the coveted youth demographic. Really the chase has done a tremendous job? On what do you base that ridiculous statement, a feeling in your left nut?

DoninAjax

“level of excitement”?

More like derision. And the old fans wait with bated breath for the latest tweak from NA$CAR’s version of Gordon Gekko to try to make his delusional idea work.

DoninAjax

I forgot to add “with help from his hero Vince McMahon.”

Mike

The engineer in me says this is a technicality of an otherwise bad idea (the chase). The ol Southern country boy in me says this is lipstick on a pig…

spot1

I have absolutely hated the entire chase (mis)conception ever since Benny Parsons first brought it up on air (NBC) and will always abhor it. The season champion should be just that, the Champion of the whole season where every race counts just as much as any other. Anything else should have an asterisk beside the name.

Pokey

I like the idea of giving the top six finishers in the ‘regular season’ bonus points to start the ‘Chase’. Maybe 11 for 1st, 7 for 2nd, 4 for 3rd, 2 for 4th, and 1 for 5th. The 3 point bonuses for wins would still apply, but if you finish in the top 5 in points and are winless, you would still get a pad against the bonus that drivers with wins will get. This makes the races in the regular season more meaningful and the sponsors more likely to want to pony up the cash because the viewing audiences may improve as well. A win win situation for everyone. Plus, if a driver wins six races in the regular season and has the points lead after race 26, he stands to start the Chase with a clear advantage in points. This could help him avoid a season ending calamity in the early rounds of the Chase. TV will dictate that there will be a Chase. But the track owners running regular season events will benefit. 2nd and 3rd tier teams which lose sponsorship because they haven’t made the Chase will still be a problem, so this idea isn’t a panacea, but it would make the Championship more important to the real racing fans and keep the drivers more interested in racing after they get that big 1st win.

Steven Batti

There should be a 36 Race Champion and a Chase Champion. That way the fans are happy and the TV audience gets their playoffs.

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