Earlier this week, I wrote that one thing NASCAR needs as the sport enters a new television contract is a more meaningful championship. The current format has left a lot of fans frustrated, because the championship feels somehow less than it used to, especially in the last few years, when it comes down to one race.
That’s fair. Under the current format, it’s hard to even say it takes a whole season to get to the championship race. Case in point: 2018, where Joey Logano had a strong, consistent year but really didn’t insert himself into the title contender conversation until the last weekend in October, when he won at Martinsville Speedway to lock into the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And while Logano had a great year, there were drivers who, overall, had a better one. Kyle Busch scored the most points and Kevin Harvick tied with Busch for the most wins.
I’ve never been one to say any driver would have won if the points lasted all year. While it’s true some teams figured out how to use the playoffs to their advantage over the years, it’s also probably true that those teams would have employed a completely different strategy under a full-season system, so that’s a wash. There have been years where one driver has been so dominant that without a playoff reset, it’s likely they would have won, but to say anyone would or would not have won is presumptuous.
In any case, there are ways NASCAR could implement a full-season points system that deserve a closer look.
Simply eliminate the playoffs. The current one-point system keeps things naturally fairly close while allowing a dominant driver to still build a cushion. Every position matters, so there’s incentive to race. Stage points aren’t necessary, but they do add some incentive early in the races, so an argument could be made for keeping them. Bringing back bonus points for leading the most laps and a bigger point payout for winning would make running up front even more important.
Finally, because every position matters so much, NASCAR needs to eliminate the crash clock and allow teams to run out the race. If they impede the leaders, slap them with a penalty, but if they have enough heart and pride to get back out there, let them go for it.
The one-point system worked in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck series for several years without playoffs, and those titles often still came down to the final race. When they didn’t, it was hard to argue that the champion didn’t deserve it or got lucky.
Resurrect the Latford system. This was the system used throughout the modern era until the one-point system took over. Top positions were worth more points than backmarker ones. What that did was reward drivers who ran up front week in and week out, allowing them to break away from the pack a bit.
The drawback, according to some, was the ease with which a driver could win a title under this system without winning multiple races. It came to a head, of course, in 2003, when Matt Kenseth won the title with a single win while Ryan Newman, with eight wins, finished sixth. The reason why was simple: Kenseth’s average finish was almost four positions better, while Newman had seven DNFs to go with those wins.
Still, the system worked for many years. Upping the points for a win would help solve the consistency over winning issue — if it really even is one. I’m not convinced that it’s a problem. Kenseth deserved his title as much as any other driver who won under the same system.
Follow INDYCAR’s lead. The IndyCar Series has a graduated point system, which, like the Latford system, awards more points for higher finishes, but with an even greater spread. The winner gets 50 points, second 40, third 35 and so on, with the spread getting smaller toward the back of the field. One notable difference, though, is that after a certain point, all drivers receive the same points. The last nine finishers, regardless of whether they completed one lap or the entire race, get five points. That would eliminate the slow cars on track while ensuring some payout.
Take the Formula 1 hard line. F1’s graduated points system awards points only to the top 10 cars in each race, with the winner getting 25 points and the 10th-place driver one. That would be a tough sell in NASCAR for both teams and fans, as there are so many competitive teams, which is not really the case in F1.
What it would do is increase competition in the middle of the pack, forcing those drivers to race tooth and nail to secure a few points. It could also quite possibly help some of the smallest teams at the end of the year, as it’s very likely several teams would have zero points for the season, meaning an even distribution of point money among them.
On the flip side, there’s not a lot of incentive for the entire field to finish every race. Starting and parking, which has more or less died a natural death, could easily become rampant again. In a field of 40, the number of drivers getting points would have to be expanded, but even so, the rift between the haves and have-nots would widen, and that’s not healthy.
Keep it really, really simple. One more option to consider is to simply award the title to the driver with the most wins. After all, winning is the main goal here, and this would guarantee those wins really mean something, as in everything. If the current system allows teams to set back for several weeks to prepare for the title run, this would allow them no such luxury.
It would be easy to set the rest of the field based on full-season points, with one per position, is with a greater spread, and the tiebreaker could remain the same as now (most second-place finishes and on down the line) or revert to overall points.
The downside here is that while wins would mean more, a lot of drivers would be eliminated weeks early. Overall, that’s not a terrible idea, but to fans of individual drivers it could quickly become a reason not to watch late in the year. Many fans worry about a driver winning too much, and this could easily magnify that.
The main thing is, there are several options here. NASCAR doesn’t necessarily need to step backward, though in some cases, this being one, a step back is healthy. There’s a big opportunity for change here, a change which would both keep fans interested in the races and erase any feelings they have of whether the champion truly deserves it. The seeds of doubt that the current system plants all too often flourish, and that’s not a good position for anyone in the sport.