Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: The Cracks in the NASCAR Point System?

Did You Notice? … The first three drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series point standings haven’t won a race yet? William Byron (fourth) is the first driver with a victory in a competitive year where no single driver has stood out seven races in.

That’s a little surprising for a postseason format that puts a primary focus on winning. Of seven different winners in seven races, just four of them are inside the top 10 in points. One (Denny Hamlin) sits 20th and didn’t have a single top-10 result before Sunday’s (April 3) victory at Richmond Raceway.

Now? He’s gone from months-long slump to instant title contender. That’s because every regular season winner who’s a Cup full-timer has made the playoffs since its expansion from 12 to 16 drivers. Through eight seasons, there’s a 100% success rate for anyone who wins just once during the first 26 races.

Technically, a victory doesn’t automatically guarantee you a playoff spot. You have to remain inside the top 30 in points and, if there’s 17 winners, the lowest person among them in the standings could be bumped out (16 if the point leader is winless; it’s the only driver who automatically qualifies). But getting to even 15 different winners in the first 26 races has never happened in this history of the format.

Will 2022 change the game? Perhaps. But last season, we started with seven winners in the first seven races only to peter out and have Kyle Larson run roughshod over the field by midsummer. The same trend could easily happen again if one organization develops an edge on the new Next Gen chassis.

See also
Eyes on Xfinity: Publicly, John Hunter Nemechek Is Playing the Long Game

Let’s assume we’re under 16 winners again. It means Hamlin’s start, a career worst, means nothing after his performance in a single race. It’s like starting the upcoming MLB season 10-20 in April only to have a postseason bid clinched by the end of May. Say what? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s never made sense. Even with the Cinderella postseason stories, like surprise Daytona 500 wins by Michael McDowell (2021) and Austin Cindric (2022). Those teams, along with every other season-opening winner since 2014, have had in theory a full seven months to then use the regular season as a test session. It’s like a NFL team clinching the playoffs the second Week 1 is complete. They can do whatever they want, lose the next eight games, and they’re still standing when the smoke clears.

This type of format can cause a variety of aggressive risk-taking, both for the drivers who have won (who, in theory, don’t need to worry about points) and those desperate for a win, especially as the regular season progresses. What’s lost in the process is the race-to-race, run-up-front resume that helps the champion stand out.

The weirdness often seems to shake out in the end. Larson, last year’s title winner, was unquestionably the most dominant driver in the sport during 2021. But 2022 seems a little more shaky. Take the current top 3 in points …

  • Ryan Blaney has led the most laps this season (334) and earned three pole positions in the first seven races. But he’s yet to reach victory lane and has posted a position differential of -63, creating an average finish (13.1) nine full positions lower than where he’s started.
  • Chase Elliott is tied for the point lead with Blaney despite being the only Hendrick Motorsports driver who hasn’t won. Elliott has just one top-five finish, a fourth at Circuit of the Americas, compared to an average of 2.7 top fives for teammates Byron, Larson and Alex Bowman.
  • Martin Truex Jr. has been the sport’s most consistent Toyota driver this season. But despite three stage wins, close calls on races he’s failed to win (Daytona International Speedway, Richmond) are what stands out.

There’s also the issue of how stage points can lead to confusing results. Three times in seven races, the actual race winner didn’t score the most points. Truex, Blaney, Christopher Bell and Byron all had more points than Hamlin due to the fact his No. 11 Toyota didn’t gain track position until the final stage. Just try explaining that one to a casual fan.

So how do you fix the problem? Simple solutions that I’ve discussed before: fewer playoff spots and more points to race winners. The postseason field was set at 12 from 2007-13; reducing it to a similar size would ratchet up the pressure throughout the year. Typically, the regular season produces in the range of 13-14 winners, which means someone would get bumped (and it guarantees every playoff driver, unless they’re the points leader, has won a race).

NASCAR could also assure every race winner receives the equivalent of maximum points (60) under this current system. Applying that to this current season would bring Ross Chastain up to third, bringing him within 10 points of the Blaney/Elliott combo. Byron would stay fourth while Truex drops into a tie for fifth with Bowman.

You could also make the argument that it’s a good thing points don’t really matter anymore. Top drivers have the confidence they’ll make the postseason and focus on being aggressive, leaving “points racing” to mid-tier drivers who often don’t have the speed they need to win. You could also argue that, if a guy like Hamlin continues to struggle, he’ll enter the postseason with fewer playoff points and that’s the “punishment” for an inconsistent regular season.

But should a 20th-place driver (similar to Aric Almirola last year) even be eligible to win a title in the first place? It’s a question worth asking as a new car, freshened-up schedule and impending new TV deal by 2025 could allow NASCAR to rethink how the postseason itself should be structured.

Did You Notice? … No driver has lapped the entire field in a NASCAR race since Geoffrey Bodine won by a full lap at North Wilkesboro Speedway in October 1994? I mention this point because of what Hamlin did at Richmond Sunday to win the race.

Yes, the No. 11 Toyota was on newer tires. But Hamlin gained a full lap on leader Byron (about 24 seconds’ worth) over the course of just 30 green flag laps. Unlapping himself with 35 laps remaining, he was passing Byron for the lead with five laps to go (with Kevin Harvick in tow). In a sense, Hamlin put a full lap on a number of drivers while making a pass on over a dozen lead-lap cars.

See also
Up to Speed: Richmond Raceway Gets its Groove Back in 2022

The debate will rage on as to whether what we saw at Richmond was great racing (I’m on the “yes” side). But it’s hard to argue Hamlin’s drive was one of the finest we’ve seen in the sport in the past 25 years. For me, it’s right up there with Dale Earnhardt’s 18th-to-first surge at Talladega Superspeedway in 2000 or Terry Labonte’s late-race jump to the front on fresh tires at Bristol Motor Speedway a year earlier.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Remember when Kyle Busch was a short track specialist? His last Cup win on one came way back in the fall of 2018 at Richmond. The grille penalty this past Sunday there was the weird type of luck that keeps happening to the No. 18 team in recent years, whether it’s Adam Stevens or Ben Beshore as crew chief.
  • Don’t look now, but Harrison Burton has back-to-back top-20 finishes and has been the highest-finishing rookie as many times as Cindric through seven races. Cindric has actually cooled off since his Daytona 500 win, with more wrecks than top-10 finishes (one) since.
  • A look ahead to the possible payback list at Martinsville Speedway this weekend: Hamlin vs. Bowman (obvious). Multiple suitors vs. Ty Gibbs (seems likely and somewhat self-policing). AJ Allmendinger/Blaney vs. Chastain. My wild card that everyone is forgetting recently? Keep an eye on Harvick vs. Elliott. Doesn’t it feel like we’re not completely done there?

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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Sally Baker

The obvious reasons why this ‘playoff’ format is just silly.

Big Tex

The beautiful thing is if some team does treat 25 races like test sessions, they’ll easily land in 12th-16th place in the playoffs & eliminate themselves after the 1st or 2nd round.

You’re going against teams getting multiple race wins & stage wins (RACERS!), so if you want to stroke (like the old Latford system encouraged late in the season), good luck.

The current points system encourages racing all race long & all season long. Better than anything before it, stroker fans.

Bill B

There will never be a perfect point system however, before choosing one, you need to determine what it is that you want the system to do.

For purists like me, I want it to have the highest probability of rewarding the driver that has performed the best from race 1 to race 36 with the championship.

On the other hand, the television folks and many fans, want it to be entertaining until the end even if it means increasing the probability that the champion will be a less deserving one based on overall stats. I will say that the “playoff” points have lessened the chance that a long shot contender will back into a championship by heavily tilting those that ran the best and finished best after 26 races with a cushion in each playoff round.

Kurt Smith

I think the current system is light years better than the original Chase was…that turd could never be polished. But I still don’t see what the heck is wrong with the champion being the guy and team that performed best over 36 races. If you want close battles at the end get rid of the restrictor plate races where finishes have absolutely nothing to do with driver skill, and punish DNFs less. To me that was the only weakness of the Latford system.

DoninAjax

Let me know when the NFL has 32 teams on the field during the Super Bowl!

JKO75

Hey Tom, are you worried something’s gonna happen between Chase & Kevin, or are you just hoping?

Clyde Hull

The playoffs need to change. What you have now, is the top 8 racers left, if they can luck out and win a race, 4 will contend for the championship. While it worked out well last year for Larson, look how many drivers had their season title dreams squashed by some poor luck in the playoffs (Harvick 2 years ago).

CeeGee

So under the prior points system racers never had their season end by poor luck? Of course they did. In this system, Harvick was able to run 10th or worse 5 of his last 9 races and still need to blow a 40pt lead going into the final race, which he did. We don’t crown Champions for having a good 70% of the season. If “lucking out” was so easy, why have only about 23% of drivers win a single Cup race in their entire Cup career? Running mid pack all season & picking up nothing but one win almost guarantees a quick exit from the playoff.

Jeremy

It certainly seems like the “playoff” format crowns Champions for having a good 70% of a season – just need to make it in and have a good 30% of the season.

2004 – Kurt Busch Champion with 3 wins. Johnson #2 at 8 wins, Gordon #3 had 5 wins, and Jr in 5th had 6 wins.

2006 – Johnson Champ with 5 wins. Harvick with 5 wins was 4th. Kahne with 6 wins finished 8th. Stewart, also with 5 wins, finished 11th (was this the year Tony won like 4 or 5 of the last 10 races but was not in the chase?)

2008 – Johnson Champ with 7 wins. Edwards 2nd with 9. Kyle Busch was 10th with 8 wins. Non-Playoff Champ would have been Edwards.

2011 – Stewart Champ with 5 wins in tie-breaker with Edwards who only had 1 win.

2012 – Kez Champ with 5 wins. Johnson was 3rd and Hamlin 6th, both also had 5 wins.

2014 – Harvick Champ with 5 wins. Logano 4th with 5 wins, Kez 5th with 6 wins.

2015 – Kyle Busch Champ with 5 wins. Logano 6th with 6 wins. Johnson 10th with 5 wins. Kenseth 15th with 5 wins. Remember, this is the year Kyle missed 10 races due to a broken leg!

2018 – Logano Champ with 3 wins. Truex Jr 2nd with 4 wins. Harvick and Kyle Busch, 3rd and 4th each had 8 wins.

2019 – Kyle Busch Champ with 5 wins. Truex Jr 2nd with 7 wins. Hamlin 4th with 6 wins.

2020 – Elliott Champ with 5 wins. Hamlin in 4th with 7 wins. Harvick 5th with 9 wins.

Just saying, as Kyle proved you only have to show up for half the season and you can win it all. 2015 would never have happened outside of this format. I remember the teeth-gnashing about Kenseth being a 1 win Champion. That has only happened 4 times since the inception of NASCAR. It was 30 years between Benny Parsons 1 win Championship in 1973 and Kenseth’s in 2003. Interestingly, it nearly happened twice in the new format: 2011 – Edwards, and 2014 – Newman. Hell, Newman could have been a 0 win Champion if things worked out right!

Last edited 2 months ago by Jeremy
CeeGee

Sorry, was away & didn’t see this. You are lumping all of the years together from 2004 to 2022. But in reality, the point structure has had changes during that period of time, some very significant. So the comment about Edwards & Newman isn’t relevant to today’s playoff system. The new point system, implemented in 2017, is comprised of 2 types of points. “Race Points”- which are comprised solely of race finishing position, and finishing in the top 10 of each stage. And “Playoff Bonus Points”- Which are bonus points that accumulate throughout the season for race wins (5), Stage wins (1) and for finishing the 26 race regular season in the top 10 in Race Points. The regular season Championship is based only on Race Points. Playoff Bonus Points are added to the Race Point total of each 3 race round of the playoffs. While Race Points reset after each 3 race round, the Playoff Bonus Points carry over into every round of the playoffs till the Championship. This gives a significant advantage to drivers that have won races, stages, and finished in the top 10 of the regular season. So, while mathematically possible, it makes it far, far more difficult for the mid pack, one off race winner to sneak into the playoff and make it to the Championship. In the pre-Chase point system (1975>) we also have had Champions that had significantly less wins than other drivers. As for Kyle Busch, he is far from the first Champion that didn’t run all the races. He also was not handed a playoff spot with a win. He was also required to be in the top 30 in points, not easy with a 10 race deficit. David Pearson seldom ran a full season & there are others. I think what you’re missing is the totally revamped point system that began in 2017. Under any system, including this one, it is possible to win a Championship with no wins, but this system makes it less likely than any prior system. I would argue it’s harder to win a Championship now than at any point in my 47 yrs as a fan.

Jeremy

I don’t think the points changes 2004 – 2022 remove the fact that winning a couple at the right time is more important than winning a bunch overall. It’s kind of shocking to see Kyle Busch’s 8 win season relegated to a 10th place final standing, as well as Harvick’s 9 win season net a 5th place final result.

Fun fact: Larson was the first driver (and Champion) to have a double digit win season since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.

Interesting Past Champions factoids: Herb Thomas was the first driver to win the Championship AND run all of the races (37 of 37) in 1953. This didn’t happen again until 1972 when Richard Petty won while running all 31 races. From 1972 on, every Cup Champion ran every race (except for Kyle in 2015).

It’s been fun looking this stuff up. In some ways I agree with your assessment about being more difficult to win a Championship, in others not so much. On one hand, a couple of bad races at inopportune times can ruin an otherwise spectacular season. On the other, get lucky at a few key moments and a mundane season turns to gold. So it’s both harder and easier? Harder to win and easier to lose?

John

I would contend that ‘win and you’re in’ is not now, nor has it ever been good for the sport. The old graduated point system (vs the single digit decrement system in use today) accomplished the same thing. The gap between first and second was greater than the gap between 2nd and 3rd, etc etc. Somehow we got away from that because adding numbers was confusing to some people. I disagree with the writer’s premise that you must win a race to qualify to become champion. If I swallow hard I can even accept the Playoffs as is, but I do not agree with you.

kyle klendworth

playoff points are incredibly important to winning the championship. look no further than harvick’s menagerie of bad luck in 2020 to miss the final four, or kyle larson’s near-disastrous round of vegas and dega. if you don’t make the final 4, you can’t win the championship, which i contend, is the real issue. harvick by all means deserved to be the 2020 champion under almost any other format – reducing the championship to one race is a terrible decision and the ONLY saving grace is that you can wallop the field to accumulate insurmountable playoff points during the regular season to almost* assuredly place yourself there.

the only thing i’d like to see change about the points system is the championship round – i think stage and “championship/playoff points” should transfer to the final round, and the final round should be more than one race. you avoid issues like the edwards/logano block that created a free win for JJ, and you avoid issues where someone could gordon/bowyer or kenseth/logano out of the single race that decides it all. i think if you invert the playoff to 1/3/3/3 from 3/3/3/1 it would make the feeling in your mouth a lot better. in this scenario the first round would be the wildcard and the bottom 4-6 drivers to qualify for the playoffs compete for 1-2 playoff spots to contend in the final 3 rounds of 3. accumulate points and playoff points as normal, but the final round resets like it does now, instead of a “winner take all finale.” let the points be important, and let the wins be important. if someone can sweep the final 3 races, then maybe that can supersede the points, but at the end of the day, it’s NASCAR’s system and i just want it to be better.

Kevin in SoCal

The points format has been hated since 2004 because people hate change. But they also said they wanted wins to count more, and here we are with this “win and you’re in” system, and they’re still not happy. It doesn’t matter if second place gets more points than first place, as first place gets the win and the playoff spot.
I do agree that 16 out of 40 is a lot of cars, but that sells more sponsorship for a team that is in the playoffs vs one that is not. Plus it makes for more TV hype.

DoninAjax

The driver who wins the title still doesn’t have to win an event. He only has to finish ahead of the other three. He can still get to the final on POINTS. and then win the title with the most POINTS.

Jeremy

Exactly. A driver could lead every single lap in the season wire to wire, get passed 1 inch before the finish line on the very last lap in the last race and thus NOT be Champion. That’s something that will never happen, but the fact it is even mathematically possible doesn’t make any sense. And sure, in this situation the winner would have A win (not 0), but is still not deserving of the Championship IMO.

Last edited 2 months ago by Jeremy
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