Tuesday January 18th, 2011

I'm a stats guy at heart. So when The Associated Press reported Monday that NASCAR was floating around a radical change to its points system, starting from scratch for the first time since 1975 (the Chase notwithstanding), it didn't take long for me to sit down, pull out a piece of paper and put this plan to action to see how it might work.

Let's break down what's likely to happen. According to the AP, NASCAR is working to simplify the system for fans, awarding 43 points for 1st place, 42 for 2nd, and all the way down in one-point increments to just a single point for 43rd. If you're confused, simply take the number 44, subtract your driver's finishing position and you have the number of points he scored that race.

But what about the bonus points, you're asking? That hasn't been divulged by NASCAR either, but let's pretend it's one point for leading a lap, two extra for leading the most and a three-point bonus for winning. So that would mean the max a driver could score per race is 48, leaving a possible 47-point swing between first and last place.

So how would such a points race change the game? To find out, I redid the outcome of the 2010 Chase using this possible system. Along with the bonus points outlined above, I adjusted Clint Bowyer's crippling penalty from 150 to 40 (its equivalent under the system) and gave drivers a 1-point bonus for each race win in the regular season compared to the 10 they get now. With that in mind, here's what your final 2010 championship results would look like:

Jimmie Johnson: 388 Kevin Harvick: 387 Denny Hamlin: 386 Carl Edwards: 340 Matt Kenseth: 314 Greg Biffle: 293 Tony Stewart: 287 Jeff Gordon: (+1) 279 Clint Bowyer: (+1) 272 Kyle Busch: (-2) 267 Kurt Busch: 265 Jeff Burton: 232

Wow! You're sitting there thinking. That would have been the closest Chase in history! Yeah ... in theory, Johnson would have won number five but squeaked by, taking it by just a point (or one position) over Hamlin and two over regular season points champion Harvick. Behind them, the field looks exactly the same compared to the old system except for one key change (which we'll get to in a minute): Kyle Busch slides down two spots in the standings while Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer each move up one.

In the meantime, let's break down the Johnson-Hamlin-Harvick battle heading into Homestead. One of the great storylines for the season's final race was how Johnson and Hamlin controlled their own destiny: if either won the 400-miler and led the most laps, the title was theirs. But a quick look at this possible new system shows that wouldn't have been the case last November:

Points with one race left:

Hamlin 356 Harvick 346 Johnson 345

That's right; under the points system detailed above, it would have been Harvick, not Johnson, in second place, with Hamlin holding a healthy lead entering the finale. All the Virginian would have to do is finish sixth or better and the title would be his, producing a scenario where he wouldn't have had to race aggressively from the back of the field after a poor starting spot. That, looking back, produced the cold reality last season in which he wrecked himself and his chance for the title at Homestead.

So as it turns out, this proposal would have increased the chances of a Hamlin cakewalk coronation at Homestead, not a nail-biter all the way to the checkered flag. But wait, there's more. Let's look at Kyle Busch's drop in the standings mentioned earlier. One of the sport's "boom or bust" hard chargers, Busch's Chase was derailed because of an ugly crash with David Reutimann and two additional DNFs. Well, turns out those rough endings would have hurt him more under this system. His 293 laps led compared to Gordon's 106 wouldn't have made a difference as consistency, not running up front, would have affected the point standings.

That, to me, means a lot going forward. In simplifying the system, it seems NASCAR would be making a ploy to push its attractiveness toward the 18-34 crowd, a generation it's been losing for several years now. (It's been well-documented, most recently in a tweet by Darren Rovell, how racing's aging fan base is catching up to it). But in conversations with fans and people in the garage, not once in five years have I heard someone say NASCAR's biggest problem is the point system is too complicated. Sure, you hear things like not enough points for winning, too many drivers in the Chase, get rid of the Chase and more points for leading laps, but never, ever "we don't understand how the point system works."

No, to me the main problem with NASCAR is the mere concept of a point system burdened with consistency taking hold: Drivers knowing on lap 100 that a fifth-place regular season finish, should they coast to the checkers, is better for them in the long run than risking a race win and crashing out. It's the boring midsection of races, drivers running single-file and saving their aggression for the final 20 laps and not all 500, that has left younger fans running for the exits. The sport needs to do something aggressive to bring a "Boys, Have At It" mentality from the drop of the green to the drop of the checkered flag.

That, more than anything, is what I see missing from this new point system proposal. NASCAR's trying to focus on consistency, not winning with ... more consistency? It's a head scratcher.

Curious to see what you think over the next week. Send me your comments at tbowles81@yahoo.com or Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Why do so many people hate the Chase?

-- Noblebull, No Hometown

Loaded gun question. We've talked about it so many times in this space ... quick hits to me are tradition, a less meaningful regular season and a focus on 12 drivers, not 43.

Let's start with changing history. NASCAR is like baseball, where fans detest any adjustment to the sport they've felt was already near perfect. Bringing a giant snowball effect in the form of a postseason format is monumental for them. The year is now effectively "split" into two seasons of 26 races and 10 apiece. During the "regular season," some teams who have it made, like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, use a portion of the races as test sessions to prepare for the playoffs. There are also drivers who will finish fourth, fifth and not fight for positions down the stretch to score points in order to hold their place in the standings. Considering the whole concept of a race is based on winning, fans never have appreciated that. Finally, once the 10-race postseason begins, a fan of a driver who didn't make the Chase (say, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) sees their driver virtually disappear on TV. Even if the driver is in contention during a race, focus turns almost exclusively to the point chase and those non-playoff contending drivers get ignored.

There you have it.

I can't tell you how nice it was to hear last week that disdain for "the Chase" isn't limited to some "disgruntled fans" that love nothing more than to complain. Too bad that NASCAR finds that fact astonishing. Also too bad that they made another half-baked decision as far as trying to give the Nationwide Series back its own identity. All they have really accomplished is to cheapen that title the same way they have the Cup title. It would have accomplished much more to limit Cup drivers not competing in their own equipment to, say, 10 races per year. But lately, nothing seems too cheap or low class for NASCAR to stoop to.

-- Sally Baker, Davison, Mich.

Yeah, a 10-race limit for Cup drivers would make sense, right? The Nationwide Series could get the best of both worlds: having their minor leaguers dip their toe into racing with Cup veterans while establishing new, future superstar names up front winning the majority of the races.

Now, you're going to have a system in place where Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski still win 25 or so of the series' 34 events. Yet they won't be eligible for or competing for the title, meaning some poor Nationwide regular could win the trophy based on no wins, the consistency of a handful of top-10 finishes and only, say, 50 or 75 total laps led. I don't think it's going to happen that way -- Aric Almirola, driving for JR Motorsports, is primed to have an outstanding year -- but leaving that door open means the problem wasn't solved.

Your little blurb about Tony Stewart may be the stupidest thing I have ever read in my life.

Will he win another championship? I don't know. I doubt it. I give him a 5 percent chance in the next five years. But to say he is not a factor? Have you looked at his stats? His days of winning six races a year are pretty close to being over, but he is still finishing in the top 10 more often than most of the other drivers in NASCAR. He was top 8 in both top 10s and top 5s last year. In 2009, he had four wins, 23 top 10s and 15 top 5s. Oh, and he led the points most of the year as well. Do you think that sounds like a driver who is a non-factor? Maybe your definition of "non-factor" is different than mine. -- Anthony Hoff

You're right in that your definition of "non-factor" is different than mine. What did the mailbag just lead with? Why none other than the points, the prestige of the Chase and winning the title. For the last five years, Stewart has not been in contention to take that championship, at least heading into the season's final race. He remains an 0-fer with the Daytona 500 and, more importantly, sits fourth in the Chevy pipeline of popularity/accomplishments as of late, trailing Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. One could argue that Jeff Gordon or even Mark Martin (when you take 2009 into account) could put up a good fight against him for that spot.

My definition of "factor" is someone who's feared as a potential race winner every Sunday, stays dominant within the manufacturer he works for, makes the highlight reels every which way you look, and remains within striking distance of title contention until the season's final few weeks. Leading 414 and 537 laps, respectively, the last two seasons -- Stewart's lowest totals since 2001 -- combined with a surprising hesitance to get aggressive on-track means he doesn't qualify, as great an owner/driver as he has been. Give me all the top-10 figures you want, but "Smoke" doesn't get his jollies from finishing eighth every week, I can tell you that.

Also, turns out our temperamental friend isn't just up and down with the media as of late. Media reports in Australia spoke of an off-track altercation while Stewart was moonlighting there last week, a fight that led to a helmet getting thrown at Sydney Speedway co-owner Brett Morris. Police initially arrested Stewart, then released him, which allowed the U.S. driver to jump on a flight back to the States. But any charges filed in the case would necessitate an Australian court appearance , one that could, conceivably, cause Stewart to miss practice, qualifying, even perhaps a race next year depending on the resulting circumstances. Not exactly the type of news that "Smoke" wanted to put him back on center stage in NASCAR.

I do not understand your revelation that "Tony Stewart will never achieve another NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship." This is not true at all. If you remember back to his beginnings with Joe Gibbs Racing, it took Smoke four full NASCAR seasons to win his first championship. He is in the same mode right now with Stewart-Haas.

Stewart is always a threat and every Sunday is competing to win and is learning to build up his relationship with crew chief Darian Grubb, and better the No. 14 team. Smoke can drive any type of car, and presumably win at it. His Chase last year was not reflective of his talent nor desire to win an R&D Championship. Mark my words, Smoke will win many races in 2011, and may pull off the upset of the Jimmie Johnson reign. -- Tim Duffin, Lancaster, Calif.

And Tim Duffin has spoken! While it's true Stewart has whipped the Haas team into shape since he bought into it after the 2008 season, those 2010 numbers (just two wins, 17 top-10s, 7th in points) were clearly a regression from four wins, 23 top-10s, and 6th in final points the year before. Stewart may have won the last non-Johnson title in 2005, but that's hardly a sign he'll bookend the reign of the No. 48. And by the way, comparing Stewart's first four years on tour (when he had no experience) to his first four years as an owner (which haven't even happened yet) don't hold water with me.

I only agree on one point, and one point only: 2011 will be key for this man and his program. With Ryan Newman failing to make the Chase last year, the third time must be a charmer for SHR if it is to retain Newman and keep Stewart relevant on the NASCAR landscape.

Do you see Tony Stewart as taking, what for him could be considered a down year in 2010 and using it as a basis for shifting his focus on just being a full-time owner? Granted, if he wins the championship in 2011, the issue might be moot for a few more years. But, what if he has another "non-Tony" year? Could this mark the beginning of Tony Stewart the Owner, not Tony Stewart the Driver? -- Jeff Thiebert, Arlington, Va.

That's a great, loaded question. Stewart publicly has denied every which way he'll ever compete in, let alone attempt to win another Indy 500. But if momentum continues shifting in IndyCar's direction, that combined with new chassis and engine rules might make Indy a more attractive prospect in 2012, perhaps 2013. At this point, Stewart's proved everything he's set out to on the NASCAR side, apart from a Daytona 500 victory. With Stewart turning 40 in May, you wonder if he'll focus more on the races he wants to run in coming years, combined with dabbling in IndyCar from time to time and building up the Eldora dirt track he owns in Ohio. You can definitely see, at points, he might be getting sick of the grind.

Do full-time Sprint Cup drivers have to contend for the Sprint Cup Championship under the new rule requiring drivers to choose one series only to score points? In other words, could Brad Keselowski declare his intent to race for the Nationwide title, but still run a full-time Cup schedule, just without the prospect of winning the title? And the obvious follow-up ... would that be appealing to guys like Kes or maybe Paul Menard or Joey Logano, who might benefit from being in a championship hunt but know that they are not Cup contenders? And would a sponsor care? -- Brian, Brookline, Mass.

Great question, Brian. On the surface, it could be more appealing for any of those three drivers, all of whom, except for Logano, fall into "a year away, at least" category when it comes to making the Chase. But your last line is probably what dooms Sprint Cup drivers from checking a different box on their NASCAR license. How much money is Ruby Tuesday's giving Roger Penske compared to Miller Lite? How happy are Miller Lite executives going to be if Keselowski actively chooses to go for a championship in a minor league series, scoring points and winning races with a sponsor that's in theory receiving less exposure and giving less money?

The answer is, you'd probably see the beer company pull its support in a heartbeat. Ditto for Home Depot (Logano) and Menards for you-know-who, which means I don't think you'll ever see that happen, even in the short-term with the new policy.

Last Week's Trivia Answer: A NASCAR rule forcing drivers to choose which championship they'll run for when applying for their license will keep Sprint Cup regulars from winning the Nationwide Series title. That means a Nationwide-only driver will win for the first time since ... 2005, when Martin Truex, Jr. did it. Although he ran a handful of Cup races that year, as hgodsey88 pointed out (I'll give him first dibs on this one) Truex was a full-timer in the Nationwide Series only when he won the title over fellow rising Cup star Clint Bowyer.

(A quick clarification on the week before, while we're at it: Earl Ross was the only Canadian Rookie of the Year in Cup Series history. Other Canadians have won races in other NASCAR series, among them Ron Fellows in Nationwide.)

This Week's Trivia Question: The reported point change would be the first radical reconstruction of NASCAR's point system since 1974. That year was also a record-setting one for one of the sport's most famous races, a mark that still stands today. What was the race and the record? Hint: I've mentioned it on SI.com in recent weeks.

Tweet of The Week: @H8Crosby to @keselowski: I know the outcome of the bachelor...do you?" @keselowski's response: Yea... I think the guy wins

(Brad Keselowski on ABC's The Bachelor, where he supposedly knows one of the people on the show, but won't say who)