The other night, I attended an informal dinner party with some close friends. They all know what I do for a living and yet they let me in anyway as long as I show up showered, shaved, and wearing shoes. Almost inevitably, the topic of NASCAR racing came up. (No, I didn’t broach the subject. I’ve learned it best not to in polite company. It tends to make non-fans eyes glaze over quickly as they steal glances at their watches.)
Only one of the folks at the table has even a casual interest in NASCAR and he asked me if the season was already over. Note to NBC: perhaps you need to market the sport a bit better and return it to broadcast channels, not relegated to the ghetto of third-tier cable networks nobody watches.
“No,” I explained. “There’s four races left, including Sunday’s race at Martinsville.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s an awfully long season.”
“How about Game 2 of the World Series?” Someone quickly interjected. As it turned out, Game 2 of the World Series had more Game 7 moments that Brian France lusts after in and of itself than NASCAR’s entire playoffs to date.
“So anyway, baseball good, long seasons bad, who’s going to win the stock car title?”
“I haven’t a clue,” I admitted.
“Well, who’s leading the points?”
“Well, it’s hard to say. Are we talking regular season points or bonus magic fairy dust playoff points?”
“Well, see, the drivers accumulate a certain type of points for the first 26 races, and those drivers who win one of those 26 races (unless the win is encumbered) get into the Playoffs. If there’s less than 16 regular season winners, which there were, they take the top drivers in points and they make it too even though they didn’t win any races. Then, those 16 drivers compete in a round of three races after being seeded by the magic fairy dust points they accumulated all season. In the three-race round, whichever 12 drivers have the most points or won one of the playoff races advance to the next round, which pares the field of championship eligible drivers down to eight… OK, I’ll shut up now.”
“Is Danica Patrick in the playoffs?”
“No, Creig, and that’s enough wine for you.”
“Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the playoffs?”
“No, he’s not, and he’s retiring at the end of the year.”
“Because he hates NASCAR and the networks and wants to put them out of business. I saw it on the Internet, so it’s got to be true.”
“Well, we should be going. Don’t want to miss Game 3.”
“That’s not until tomorrow night.”
“Yeah, but there’s construction on southbound 100. No sense taking chances.”
“I did say I’d shut up.”
“And we appreciate but doubt that. See ya.”
OK, that’s not a verbatim transcript of the conversation, but it’s frighteningly close. I’m not a baseball fan, and yet I understand the process underway. It’s a seven-game series and the Dodgers are battling the Astros. The first team to win four games is the champion. Heck, you could even explain that with a mouth full of dinner roll. It would be uncouth, but you could.
You see my point? Even NASCAR fans struggle to understand what’s going on in the championship hunt, so casual or non-fans are probably a lost cause with the convoluted mess of a system we’re enduring this year.
There’s no sense pointing out a problem unless you’re ready to propose a solution. How do we make the championship chas… er, battle easier to understand and provide for good quality racing. After pondering to the point my ponderer was sore, I’ve come up with a simple solution: whichever driver wins the most races in a season wins the title. There are no bonus wins for the Daytona 500, the World 600, or even the Southern 500. Every race counts equally. In the event there’s a tie for the most wins, the first tie-breaker is most second-place finishes. After that, it’s most third-place finishes and so on. We’re talking point totals in single or, at best, double-digit numbers anyone could add up without a calculator.
That’s it. Book ’em, Dano.
So how would the above system have altered title winners over the years? Let’s start by looking back to 1967. Yes, it was 50 years ago, but I just like to remind people occasionally that Richard Petty won 27 races in 1967, ten of them consecutively. Nobody else has even come close to those sort of stats. It’s like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter every game he played and scoring a home run each time he was at bat. It’s why older fans get confused when someone asks, “Who was the greatest NASCAR driver ever?” without adding “other than Richard Petty.”
In 1968, David Pearson won the Cup title. That year, Pearson and Petty both won 16 races. But Pearson finished second 12 times to the King’s six runner-up results. Had Petty won the season finale at Jefferson, he’d have been the champ. He finished second that day and Pearson was third. Exciting enough for you, Homer?
David Pearson won it all in 1969. Under my system, he’d have done the same, having captured 11 races to Petty’s 10. Had Petty won the finale at Texas, he’d have been champ based on second-place finishes. That day in Texas yielded a relative rarity. Not only did Pearson or Petty not win, each driver suffered DNFs due to blown clutches. They ended up 26th and 21st, respectively in a race won by Bobby Isaac.
One of NASCAR’s forgotten legends, Isaac was the 1970 Cup champion driving the K and K Insurance Dodge Daytona in most races. But under my system, Petty would have taken the crown with 18 wins to Issac’s 11.
In 1971, stock car racing looked very different. The folks at Ford had withdrawn their factory effort from NASCAR. Chrysler had only two factory teams, Petty’s and Buddy Baker’s Mopars. That year, the title chase would have been a snoozer with Petty winning 21 times. Bobby Allison was second with a distant 10 wins. The seeds of the Great Petty/Allison feud were being sown.
Circumstances changed even more in NASCAR nation circa 1972. Winston had joined the sport as a title sponsor of the newly dubbed Winston Cup Series. The schedule had been pared down from 48 races to 31 at RJR’s request. And Chrysler left NASCAR racing as well, ending the factory era of the sport, a rather touchy love/hate relationship over the years. The battle would have been close, but in the end Allison scored 10 wins to Petty’s eight, which would have made him the first Winston Cup champ. Older fans recall how desperately Allison, one of the most talented and likable drivers in the sport, struggled before winning his only title in 1983.
In 1973, the points system used was every bit as confusing as this year’s. Nobody seemed to really understand how it worked and, like the current system, near everybody hated it. The affable Benny Parsons won that year’s title. Somehow, Parsons won the championship with just one win and he had a relief driver for a portion of that race.
The 1973 battle ended up quite a spectacle in that Parsons’ car got wrecked in the season finale. Crewmen and volunteers leapt into action, repairing Parsons’ mangled Chevy just in time to have him return to the track and run enough laps to be champion.
Well behind him, 13th in points was Pearson, who won 11 times that season despite only running 18 out of 28 races. I think that stat would have made him a worthy champion.
Cale Yarborough was making some noise in 1974, winning ten races. The title Chase would have been epic with Petty also winning ten times. But Petty finished second eight times to Cale’s four, so he’d have been champion under either system. Had Yarborough won any of the last four races of the season, though, he’d have won the title. Yarborough finished second at Rockingham and third at Ontario.
Petty would have won in 1975, the first year of the Latford point system used for 30+ seasons. Nobody came even close to his 13 wins that year.
The King had an off year in 1976. He won just three races. Pearson, driving for the Wood Brothers team, won 10 while Yarborough, driving for Junior Johnson, earned nine trophies. They’d have entered the season finale at Ontario (California not Canada) tied with Pearson getting the nod for the win in that race.
Yarborough would have won the title under either points system in 1977 with nine wins. Some pesky loudmouth kid named Darrell Waltrip finished second with six wins. Just like that, another great feud was born; Jaws and the Chicken Man both outright despised each other. Petty, now age 40 won five times that year.
Once again, Yarborough would have claimed the title in 1978 with 10 wins to Waltrip’s six and Allison’s five. Allison hated Waltrip almost as much as Yarborough did. Also of note, Richard Petty failed to score a single win that season for the first time since 1959. What’s that you were saying about Jimmie Johnson winning at least one race for the last 16 years?
After that disastrous ’78 season, Petty jumped the fence from Dodge to GM in 1979. It worked out pretty well for him with five wins, including the Daytona 500 and that year’s championship. But under my system, DW would have won the Cup with seven wins. Every plan has bugs you have to work out of it.
Some folks consider the 1979-80 season as the changing of the guard in NASCAR. Petty, Yarborough, and Pearson were still out there, but so was Waltrip and some rough-as-a-cob driver who went by Earnhardt and won that year’s championship. But in 1980, Yarborough had six wins to Earnhardt and Waltrip’s five apiece. Earnhardt and Yarborough each won two of the last five races so Earnhardt still would have had a chance at that year’s season finale.
Waltrip won the 1981 championship and he’d have won under my system as well with his 12 victories. That’s more than Petty, Pearson, and Yarborough had combined. The battle would have been a lot closer than it might appear on paper, though with Waltrip scoring four straight wins in the final six races of the season.
It was déjà vu all over again in 1982, with Waltrip winning 12 races and the title. Allison dogged his rival with eight victories. Petty failed to win a single race that year and Earnhardt won just once. (In a Ford, I might add.)
Bobby Allison finally won his first (and only) title in 1983. He had six wins that year but so did Waltrip. Waltrip would have prevailed with eight second-place finishes to Allison’s five. Like I said, my system isn’t perfect. But once again, it would have come down to the last race of the year with either driver taking the title with a victory.
Terry Labonte was the 1984 Winston Cup champion but won just two races that year. Waltrip won seven but finished fourth in the standings under the NASCAR rules at the time. Go figure.
Bill Elliott fans remain bitter over the 1985 season. Elliott won 11 times that year, taking both the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 as well as the Winston Million. Elliott had already won five races in ’85 before Waltrip took his first trophy. Waltrip wound up with just three wins but still took the championship, which is galling. Earnhardt won four times that year while Harry Gant also won three times. It was Elliott’s year and my system would have handed him the title going away.
Earnhardt won his second title in 1986. But Earnhardt’s close friend Tim Richmond won seven races that year to the Intimidator’s five victories. It would have been special with ’86 being the last year Richmond was able to run the full schedule. Hollywood could have made a movie about that… a lot better movie than Days of Thunder.
Earnhardt won the title in 1987, and he deserved it with 11 wins, the most in a single season of his career. Elliott won six races that year, including three of the last four, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Earnhardt’s record season.
There was a new player at the table in 1988, as Rusty Wallace won six times. So did Bill Elliott, who won that year’s championship. Wallace made a late-season charge that is the stuff of legends, winning four of the last five races. Under my system, he’d have prevailed with six second-place finishes to Elliott’s two. But again, the race for the top spot would have gone down to the season finale at Atlanta, where Wallace won.
Wallace had some very unkind things to say about how Elliott “cruised” to the 1988 title rather than racing for it. It’s best to keep in mind the rule, “Make your words soft in case one day you have to eat them.” Rusty won six races and the title in 1989. Waltrip also won six times while Earnhardt won five times. Wallace would have won based on three second-place finishes to Waltrip’s two.
Earnhardt returned to the top of the heap in 1990. Nobody else was even close under either points system. With nine wins that year, Earnhardt dominated the sport.
You again? Earnhardt repeated as champion in 1991. But he won only four races that season. Davey Allison and Harry Gant both won five times that year. Gant finished second twice while Allison never finished second that year. But it still would have been a thrilling battle to the finish with Allison winning two of the last three races. Earnhardt would have been in the mix as well with four wins.
1992 was one of the best seasons ever in NASCAR, that rare unicorn under the old system that went down to the finale. Allison and Elliott let it be known they meant to be players right from Jump Street. Allison won the Daytona 500 and Elliott followed up by winning the next four consecutive races. But Elliott didn’t win again until the Atlanta season finale.
Allison would also win five times that year, including the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix so Atlanta would have been a barnburner anyway. Elliott and Allison both had two second-place finishes and three third-place results, so it would have come down to fourth-place finishes. Allison had five of those to Elliott’s one. A title for Allison and Tim Richmond? Yep, I like my system better. (1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki won just twice that year.)
Dale Earnhardt was a bit grumpy heading into the 1993 season having won just once in ’92. Earnhardt tended to drive very fast when he was angry. And he was habitually angry. The Intimidator rebounded nicely that year with six wins and a title. But under my system, Earnhardt would have been even more pissed off. Wallace won 10 races that year while Mark Martin won five. Tragically, Allison and Kulwicki lost their lives in aircraft accidents during the ’93 season.
It would have been another Earnhardt/Wallace battle in 1994 with Earnhardt scoring six wins to Wallace’s eight. Yes, I imagine Dale Senior would have been pissed. Also of note, a kid named Jeff Gordon won two races that year.
1995 was the Changing of the Guard, Part II. OK, newer fans, wake up. They finally invented Jeff Gordon for real in 1995. He won the first of his titles that year. Gordon won nine races that year to Earnhardt’s five and Martin’s four. Like that Eagles song goes, there’s a new kid in town.
In 1996, Terry Labonte won the Winston Cup but just two races. His Hendrick teammate, that Gordon fellow, won 10. Yeah, that’s how screwy that points system could be. Rusty Wallace won five races that season and finished seventh in the standings. Pass that Hookah please, Alice.
Gordon was back on top of the Cup standings in 1997, scoring 10 wins en route to his title. Dale Jarrett won seven times to keep Gordon honest. It’s surprising Earnhardt’s head didn’t explode as he failed to win a single event that year.
Wonder Boy was back in 1998, scoring another 13 wins and another Cup title. Earnhardt won just one race, but it was a doozy: the Daytona 500. Martin was Gordon’s main competition that year with seven race victories. To finish demoralizing his competition, Gordon won the last two races of the season.
Dale Jarrett won four races and the Cup title in 1999, the first and only championship for Robert Yates Racing. But Gordon scored seven wins that year and would have been champion under my system. Earnhardt was at least back in the game with three wins that year. Rookie Tony Stewart also won three times in 1999 while Bobby Labonte won five events and Jeff Burton won six times. It was what amounted to one of the more competitive seasons in the sport.
Bobby Labonte built on the momentum of his ’99 season to take the 2000 Cup championship after the world somehow managed not to end with the start of the new millennium. Labonte won four races that year. Earnhardt could only manage two victories, the same as his son. (Who I don’t think really hates NASCAR.) Labonte’s teammate Tony Stewart won six times that year and would have been champion under my system.
After a relatively poor season, with just three wins in 2000, Gordon returned to the top with six wins in 2001 and another title. Jarrett managed four wins that year while Dale Earnhardt Jr. had three. Naturally, his dad wasn’t around to post any wins after dying in the 2001 Daytona 500. Once again, the champion remains the same under my system. By the way, Robby Gordon won an oval track race that year. Nobody knows how the hell that happened.
Tony Stewart was credited with his first Cup title in 2002, but won just three races that year. Matt Kenseth won five Cup events and would have been champion under my system. Kurt Busch, in his second season had four wins. It would have been a great title battle under my system with Kenseth winning the penultimate race of the year and Busch responding by winning the season finale. Oh, and some rookie named Jimmie Johnson won three times in 2002. Cue up the music for the next changing of the guard.
Matt Kenseth captured the title in 2003 but won only one race early in the year. That’s what started NASCAR’s imbecilic experiments on how to better crown a deserving champion. (Which I’ve finally done for them. Except for the imbecilic part.) It was a competitive season with nine different winners in the first nine races. Ryan Newman would have won the title under my system with eight wins.
Kurt Busch did, in fact, win the championship in 2004 with three Cup victories. Jimmie Johnson won eight races that year while Earnhardt Jr. had the best season of his career, winning six points-paying events. I have tried over and over to find a points system that would have given Junior a title but, short of allowing the champion to be decided by Most Popular Driver voting, there just isn’t one. Johnson, despite leading the circuit in victories wound up with his second straight runner-up finish in the points. Conspiracy theorists, now is your bookmark where NASCAR started fussing about with the points system trying to hand Johnson multiple titles with imbecilic results.
Tony Stewart was Cup champion again in 2005. Maybe he threatened to drive Brian France to the nearest bar if he lost? Stewart did, in fact, win five races that year, but Greg Biffle would have been that year’s champion under my system with six wins. Gordon, Johnson, and Carl Edwards had all won five races, so the four of them would have all gone to Homestead with a chance at the title with Biffle getting the nod for winning the race.
Johnson won his first (but certainly not last) title in 2006. He, Stewart, and Kevin Harvick all scored five wins that season. But it would have been Kasey Kahne, not Johnson, who won that year’s title. Kahne scored six victories to lead the way in his best season running for Ray Evernham.
Johnson repeated as champion in 2007 but he did it the old-fashioned way by kicking ass and scoring 10 wins that year, including victories in four of the last five races. Jeff Gordon was next best with six wins, which is sort of like saying the English finished second in the Revolutionary War. A baffled and dispirited Kenseth was overheard chanting, “Wait a second. I won two races this year and I’m not champion?”
He’s back! Johnson scored his third consecutive title in 2008. Seven wins is impressive but Carl Edwards won nine times that season. Johnson and Edwards combined to win the last five races of the season, so it would have been a nail-biter under my system. Gordon, by the way, failed to score a single win that year. “And he’s holding her, and you’re still arrrroooouuund.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but Johnson won another title in 2009. Once again, he scored seven wins to take the trophy. Martin won five races, while Stewart won four but the champion would have been the same in 2009.
Who’ll stop the reign? Johnson won the championship again in 2010. But he had just six wins that year compared to eight scored by Denny Hamlin.
Finally, all streaks come to an end. Stewart won the 2011 Cup championship, scoring five wins on the way including the season finale. Kevin Harvick would have kept Stewart honest, at least adding things up my way, by winning four times. Stewart would have prevailed under my rules, though by winning the Homestead season finale. Edwards, who NASCAR credited with tying Stewart in points that year, won just two times.
Brad Keselowski took home the big trophy in 2012. Keselowski, Johnson, and Hamlin all won five races that year. Johnson came on strong down the stretch with wins in two of the last four races. Any of them could have won the title at Homestead but Hamlin finished 24th, Keselowski 15th, and Johnson 36th. Johnson would have claimed another title, winning the tiebreaker with five second-place finishes to three by Keselowski and one by Hamlin.
Johnson returned to the top spot in 2013, but should he have? Johnson scored six wins to Kenseth’s seven. So once again, my way those two drivers would have arrived at the season finale ready to battle it out. But Kenseth finished second in that race and Johnson had to settle for ninth. Advantage Kenseth. Again.
Kevin Harvick won a title with his new ride at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. He won four races that year, including the final two. But Keselowski won six events, Joey Logano won five times, while Johnson and Gordon tied Harvick with four.
That brings us to 2015, the remarkable feat that earned Kyle Busch the nickname of Komeback Kyle after he missed the first 11 races of the season and still won the title. OK, so nobody actually called him Komeback Kyle. They called him a great many things, but not that, because not only is it misspelled, it’s stupid and I felt a little vomit in my throat typing those words.
I feel a great deal of sympathy for any driver hurt while racing but that would have been a good time for Joe Gibbs to smack his irascible driver upside the head and tell him, “Your day job pays pretty good. Quit this fooling around with the kids on Saturday.” It would have made the XFINITY and Truck Series races a lot more fun to watch the last few years, if nothing else.
Anyway, Busch did win five races that year. So did Johnson and Kenseth. But Logano won six races, so he would have been my KISS champion.
That, of course, brings us to last year. NASCAR champion Johnson won five Cup races. A bunch of other drivers (Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.) all won four races apiece. So Johnson would still have been my champion. He would have gone into the season finale a race ahead of the other drivers listed above and then sealed the deal with his win at Homestead.
So where are we at so far this year? Truex leads all drivers with seven wins. Kyle Larson has four wins (but under NASCAR’s system is already eliminated.) Kyle Busch has five wins. Under my system, he’d still be eligible but just barely, faced with the daunting task of winning the last three races of this season. If Busch were somehow to pull off a tie, his seven runner-up positions would trump Truex’s single second-place finish.
Under NASCAR’s system, four drivers will be eligible for a title at Homestead. That’s more exciting, some will claim. Perhaps, but given the season Truex has had to date, if he doesn’t win the title it will be a travesty. (A travesty is “a false, absurd, or distorted” turn of events, not a new Chevy SUV, Franklin.) Occasionally, someone is going to hit his stride and dominate any sport and that’s what Truex has done this season. And if Truex does lose the title, a lot of outraged fans might start hollering, “Hey, even that moron over at Frontstretch had a better idea than this mess. Bring it on.”
So to review, class, under my system a lot of champions crowned NASCAR’s way would be the same, but 29 times in 50 years a different one would have emerged. In more instances then under the current system, my method would have bought the championship to the final round without resets, fairy powder bonus points, and a separate rulebook written for the No. 48 team.
But best of all, my way is a whole lot easier for fans to understand and explain to someone new to the sport. Two sentences. That’s it. And nobody is EVER going to beat Richard Petty’s 27-race win season or his 10 consecutive victories. EVER.
OK, I’ll shut up now. I promise.
Champions by Year Since 1967
(Names in bold beside the champion indicate who would have won under my system)
1967 Richard Petty
1968 David Pearson
1969 David Pearson
1970 Bobby Isaac (Richard Petty)
1971 Richard Petty
1972 Richard Petty (Bobby Allison)
1973 Benny Parsons (David Pearson)
1974 Richard Petty
1975 Richard Petty
1976 Cale Yarborough (David Pearson)
1977 Cale Yarborough
1978 Cale Yarborough
1979 Richard Petty (Darrell Waltrip)
1980 Dale Earnhardt (Cale Yarborough)
1981 Darrell Waltrip
1982 Darrell Waltrip
1983 Bobby Allison (Darrell Waltrip)
1984 Terry Labonte (Darrell Waltrip)
1985 Darrell Waltrip (Bill Elliott)
1986 Dale Earnhardt (Tim Richmond)
1987 Dale Earnhardt
1988 Bill Elliott (Rusty Wallace)
1989 Rusty Wallace
1990 Dale Earnhardt
1991 Dale Earnhardt (Harry Gant)
1992 Alan Kulwicki (Davey Allison)
1993 Dale Earnhardt (Rusty Wallace)
1994 Dale Earnhardt (Rusty Wallace)
1995 Jeff Gordon
1996 Terry Labonte (Jeff Gordon)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Dale Jarrett (Jeff Gordon)
2000 Bobby Labonte (Tony Stewart)
2001 Jeff Gordon
2002 Tony Stewart (Matt Kenseth)
2003 Matt Kenseth (Ryan Newman)
2004 Kurt Busch (Jimmie Johnson)
2005 Tony Stewart (Greg Biffle)
2006 Jimmie Johnson (Kasey Kahne)
2007 Jimmie Johnson
2008 Jimmie Johnson (Carl Edwards)
2009 Jimmie Johnson
2010 Jimmie Johnson (Denny Hamlin)
2011 Tony Stewart
2012 Brad Keselowski (Jimmie Johnson)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (Matt Kenseth)
2014 Kevin Harvick (Brad Keselowski)
2015 Kyle Busch (Joey Logano)
2016 Jimmie Johnson