1. Show me the money
Early on, it was all about prize money. Simply put, the more a race paid, the more points it was worth. The exact way points were awarded varied slightly, but for the first 20 years, winning the biggest races was worth the most points. At one point, finishing 25th in a really big race (one that paid a $25,000 purse) was worth the same points as winning a race with a purse under $1,000.
Some racing series still offer more points in bigger races. IndyCar has a couple of double-points races, including the season finale, though they’re not based on the purse amount.
Under the purse money system, teams could choose to run a lot of lower-paying races (which presumably attracted less competition) or run fewer, more lucrative ones (the risk being that those races attracted a lot of very good cars). That resulted in some interesting season results.
In 1963, champion Joe Weatherly won three times in 53 races with 20 top fives and an average finish of 9.1. All are impressive numbers, but take a look at runner-up Richard Petty’s season: 14 wins, 30 top fives and 7.5 average in 54 races. Weatherly beat Petty by over 2,000 points that year. Meanwhile, Fred Lorenzen finished third (albeit a distant third at 3,714 points back) while running just 29 races to fourth-place Ned Jarrett’s 53.
And you thought the playoff points were confusing.
The idea of certain races paying more points is not without merit. It works in IndyCar, which pays double markers in the Indianapolis 500 and the season finale. The problem with duplicating that in NASCAR is it would be hard to do without making its biggest race, the Daytona 500, one of those races, and Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are often little more than a crapshoot when it comes to winning them.
Beyond that, there’s a possibility of awarding more points at perhaps the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. The regular-season finale would be another opportunity — except it’s also at Daytona next year. The requirement to (more or less) attempt all races to compete in the playoffs would keep drivers from skipping races in this day and age.
Points based on money, though, is a dead concept, and for good reason.
2. How far will you go for a point?
The pre-modern era closed with a similarly-weighted system that was used from 1968-1971, except it used race length to determine how many points were paid out. A race of 400 miles or more paid three times as many points as one under 250 miles, rewarding durability and endurance. That meant the point spread between positions was also greater in a longer race.
Drivers could no longer run half the races and still contend for a title, but drivers still rarely drove in every race on a schedule that featured anywhere between 48 and 54 races — top drivers missed a race or two regularly.
The system changed in 1972, but for a couple of years, mileage was still in play as points were awarded based on finishing position but drivers also earned points based on laps completed. This was determined by the length of the track, with longer tracks paying more per lap, though races at short tracks consisted of more laps. That meant the final payouts were similar, but not equal everywhere. The schedule was also drastically shortened as NASCAR entered its Modern Era.
Again, there’s something to be said for rewarding teams for having both speed and longevity in races. Mechanical issues are much rarer now, but failures were more common then. Fast sometimes meant less than durable, and durability sometimes meant slower speeds. Longer races don’t necessarily mean more attrition, and surviving at Daytona and Talladega is usually worth a bundle of positions and points because so many cars get involved in crashes. Plus, there are few tracks left that are a mile or less or over two miles.
3. The Latford years
It wasn’t until 1975 that NASCAR paid the same points in every race. That followed a (thankfully) short-lived system that calculated a drivers points based on total money won and the number of races started, put through a math formula. Yeah, nobody needs that much math.
Devised by Bob Latford, the new system paid points based on finish regardless of the race, with decreasing gaps between points the lower down the totem pole a driver finished. Second through sixth were separated by five points, seventh through 11th by four and the rest by three — putting a greater premium on those top positions than the current system. A win paid between five (1975-2003) and 10 points (’04-10) more than second, and bonus points were handed out for leading a lap and leading the most laps.
The Latford system worked, and it rewarded excellence without allowing teams to cherry-pick races, meaning fans were assured of seeing all the drivers at each race. It also meant that fans in the stands at every race saw an event that played an equal role in determining the eventual champion.
But it also allowed for a couple of less desirable results. One, it was not unheard of for the championship to be decided before the final race. That didn’t sit well with some fans, and it really didn’t sit well with sponsors who paid a premium to have their name on the final race of the year only to have it be anticlimactic because the champion had already been crowned. Ford, especially, was unwilling to host a “championship weekend” where the champion might not be determined.
Two, it rewarded consistency to a degree where a driver with multiple wins could lose a title to a driver with one or two. The playoffs countered both of these issues, but brought new problems to the sport instead, with many questioning the legitimacy of those titles.
Overall, though, the Latford system may be the best NASCAR has had because it rewarded both winning and season-long performance.
4. Closing the gap
The most recent major change to the system came in in 2011, when the current payout was introduced, with just one point separating each finishing spot. Originally, it still featured bonus points for leading laps and leading the most laps and a three-point win bonus.
Since the introduction of stage racing, with points awarded for running in the top 10 at approximately the quarter and halfway points in each race, the bonus points were taken away, with stage and race winners getting playoff points that carry from round to round.
The one-point system keeps the field closer than the Latford system — if a driver breaks away to a big lead now, they’ve likely been dominant to do it.
Ironically, it also renders the original argument for a playoff system virtually obsolete as it tightens the title race. A look at this year’s season-long points without playoff resets reveals a gap of just six between first and second, hardly a done deal with one race to go. While it’s true that there’s little value in those calculations because team strategy would be different, the closeness of the battle itself is probably more valid, though the drivers involved may not be. Are the multiple resets and the playoffs in general still needed? There’s certainly an argument to be made that under this system, they are not.
That argument is made stronger by some very close championship battles in NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Trucks series before the playoff format was adopted.
With a few tweaks, the one-points system could be a really good one — easy for fans to calculate, and producing a tight battle without artificiality.
5. What hasn’t been done
For fans of the Latford system, there’s one more system that’s worth a look: the IndyCar system. It’s a little like the love child of the Latford system on steroids and the current one with a twist: 50 points to the winner, 40 for second, 35 for third, 32 for fourth with a two-point separation down to 24th, which is worth six. Every finisher 25th and below gets five points (the maximum field for that series is 33). That takes away the incentive for drivers to get back on track in a wrecked racecar without the crash clock. It also makes finishing at least 24th a lot more lucrative and those top finishes really worth fighting for.
Winning deserves to be heavily rewarded, and the IndyCar system does that. But it also produces championship battles worth watching without a playoff system. Sure, some years, someone runs away and hides … and if they do, IndyCar doesn’t penalize their excellence with multiple resets that dissolve the advantage they worked to gain. It doesn’t give anyone anything they didn’t earn, yet the title often comes down to late in the final race. Excellence is given more reward than mediocrity, but after a point, mediocrity is treated as such, with all of those teams being treated the same on the chart …which also gives a somewhat better chance to overcome a bad race.
The IndyCar schedule is significantly shorter than NASCAR’s, so the questions would be whether the excitement could be sustained that long or whether it would allow a driver to open up an insurmountable lead over more races. What works well for one series might not work so well for another.
However, it’s the type of system that could make NASCAR’s title race exciting and legit while making each race hotly contested for the bigger spreads. Worth looking at? Absolutely.