Since 2004 NASCAR has used a points system that is rather unique in the world of motorsport. The championship winner is determined by the ‘Chase for the Cup’ which is currently a series of elimination races that work like the finals of a football competition. The format ensures four drivers go into the last race of the season with an equal chance of winning the championship so there is guaranteed to be drama up until the very end.
However, there are critics of this format (which was updated in 2014) who feel there is no reward for the driver who scores the most points during the regular season. NASCAR bosses have listened to this feedback and there is now an appetite to change the system.
NASCAR racing chief Steve O’Donnell said “One of the things we’re looking at is the first 26 races … I think that’s certainly fair for us to look at and we are. I’d say very serious consideration.”
The NASCAR season is 36 races long and is split into two parts. The first 26 races make up the regular season whilst the last 10 races are part of the Chase.
Before the Chase starts the top 16 drivers (based on wins) have their points tally boosted to roughly the same level. This gives them all a relatively equal chance to win the championship at the expense of everyone else. They enter the first of three elimination rounds which each consist of three races. At the end of each elimination round the four worst performing drivers are dropped and the survivors have their points tally reset. The end result is that four drivers go into the final race of the season on perfectly equal points and whoever among them finishes higher in that race is champion. Simple as that.
One key criticism of the current Chase format is that it doesn’t offer any reward to the driver who scores the most points during the regular season. In the 12 seasons that a Chase format has been used in NASCAR, there have been 7 occasions when the champion would’ve been different under a more conventional points system. There is little incentive to perform consistently or fight for championship position in the first 26 races. Kevin Harvick had a decent points lead after the 2016 regular season but was eliminated during the Chase and will not go into this weekend’s final race with a championship chance.
To highlight how little the regular season races impact the title fight, Kyle Busch won last year’s championship despite missing the first 11 races. Although he was sitting 27th on points before the 2015 Chase started, Busch was able to scrape into the elimination rounds, make the final race, and claim the title.
Drivers have suggested awarding a trophy or some other arbitrary prize to the regular season winner but perhaps the best idea is a simple one.
REWARDING THE REGULAR SEASON WINNER
An easy tweak to the Chase format would be giving the driver with the most regular season points automatic entry into the final race as a championship contender. That driver couldn’t be dropped from the Chase during the elimination rounds and would remain eligible for the title until the very end. The other 15 drivers in the Chase would fight for remaining three contender positions using the same elimination format.
This idea offers a substantial reward to the driver who scores the most regular season points, it doesn’t take away from the entertainment value of the chase format, and it requires little rework to the current rules. In addition to making first place on the points table worth fighting for earlier in the season it also creates an interesting story-line for the sport with the regular season ‘champ’ having to fight off three title challengers in the final race.
If you score the most points in the first 26 races you surely deserve some sort of advantage heading into the Chase.
The 2016 NASCAR finale is this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.