Bruce Martin
Monday January 24th, 2011

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- NASCAR has floated its trial balloon around the garage in regards to possible rules changes for the 2011 season. But will these ideas actually be put into use?

Knowing NASCAR, it wouldn't have floated these ideas around unless it intends to make a change. That is why I expect Chairman Brian France to announce a simplified points system and a few more changes to the Chase when he speaks at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Wednesday night.

But will a new system help to simplify a cumbersome and often confusing points breakdown? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

"Even for us we have to occasionally go to the rule book and look at what position got what points," NASCAR president Mike Helton admitted. "The goal for some time has been to create a points system that is easy to understand, easy to explain, easy to be talked about, but also be credible at the end of the season.

"We're getting a lot of great input from the drivers about the tweaks that would go along with something like that, so it's actually been fun to work on."

The new system would award 43 points for first, 42 for second and so on all the way to last place getting one point. NASCAR would likely continue to award bonus points for leading the most laps and leading a lap. Helton indicated more bonus points could be awarded for victories and, on Friday at preseason testing at Daytona, said the drivers have been open to the changes.

But unless a significant bonus is given to winning races, will the new points system really be much of a change? Again, it will be simpler to understand, but it may not provide the necessary incentive for drivers to race all out, all the time.

It's an interesting idea. But hey, everyone can't bring their "A Game" every day and the season is certainly a marathon instead of a sprint. The teams and drivers that understand that the best are usually the ones in contention for the title at the end of the season. That is why Jimmie Johnson is attempting to win a sixth-straight Cup title because he knows when to race and when to pace.

"I don't think you're going to do anything to a point system that's going to push people to win more, because we're already doing everything we possibly can," said Jeff Gordon, who won four Cup titles prior to 2004, but has yet to win a championship in the Chase Era. "We want to win. It's just in our nature. It's part of the competition. I think the win means more to you than anything else. The points and the money and whatever benefits can come from it are just sort of the icing on the cake."

Ever since NASCAR went to the 10-race Chase format to determine its champion in 2004, there have been many examples where the best driver in the first 26 races of the season falters once the Chase begins. In 2010, Johnson staged a dramatic, come-from-behind surge to win the championship in the final race of the season over Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

It was the second time in Chase history that the championship was actually decided in the final race of the season, giving France his much-wanted "Game Seven" scenario. Kurt Busch's title in 2004 and Johnson's last year were the type of finishes NASCAR expected the Chase to produce every season.

But as any true sports fan knows, the World Series doesn't always go to Game Seven, neither do the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup playoffs. That is what makes "Game Seven" so special because it isn't a guarantee. France, however, wants to guarantee a fight to the final race every year and if that means contriving it even further, so be it.

Interestingly, Kevin Harvick received a text message from New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi after the final race of the season where the man who guided the Yankees to the World Series in 2009 admitted he was confused by how NASCAR determines its champion.

"I got a text from Joe Girardi, he says, 'Hey, man, great year, good job; I don't understand how you can have the best year and not win. I don't understand your points system,'" Harvick recalled. "I think if you look at the new point system, I think it's easy to understand. And those are the people that need to understand it are the people who aren't here every week, live it, breathe it, and really understand how the sport works. It's the casual fan that we need to recapture and make it exciting and easily understandable."

As pointed out in this column last season, any further changes to the Chase to make Homestead a "winner-take-all" race simply mean NASCAR is crowning the champion of Homestead; not the champion of the season.

"I do think it's simpler for people to figure out," Hamlin said of the possible changes to the points formula. "Obviously when you know you're 18 points behind someone, that's 18 spots without the bonus points and everything. From what I saw that they proposed, the one thing that they were open to is possibly giving a few more bonus points for the wins in the regular season to count towards the Chase, and I think because just maybe giving one point to someone who wins a race, putting that to your Chase points, that's only one spot, that's not equal to what we had before.

"I definitely think that they're open to that change, but I'm definitely in favor of the 1 to 43. I think it's going to be easier for us to figure out. "

One change that has been implemented so far is to limit drivers to scoring championship points in only one series. That keeps Cup interlopers such as Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski from contending for both the Cup and Nationwide Series championships and places more emphasis on the drivers who earn their living in Nationwide and are attempting to step up to Cup one day.

"The 2011 driver applications went out in the mail to the drivers. It had in it a paragraph and a point where you would declare which national series you would collect points -- championship points in as a driver, and you could only pick one of those," Helton explained.

Nationwide Insurance, the series sponsor, wanted a "Sunset Provision" on this change so that Keselowski and Edwards could contend for both titles in 2011, but NASCAR officials decided to make the change now.

"We stuck to the decision once we made it that there -- and felt like it was better for everybody concerned, the whole industry, to go ahead and draw the line and not have any lingering effects to it," Helton said. "And we've done that with other decisions we've made. It's the best overall decision to go ahead and make that call and go ahead and draw the line and say, no, it starts and stops right here."

This should have happened long ago. The Nationwide Series is supposed to showcase up-and-coming talent, not reward Cup drivers with a chance to mop up on the competition in a lower-level series.

In 2011, the Nationwide championship will be determined by drivers who depend on the series for their livelihood. In the days of the Busch Series, drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton used this series to hone their skills before moving up to Cup full-time.

By making this rules change, NASCAR is getting back to its roots while still allowing big-name drivers into the lineup on Saturday. Those Cup drivers can still compete for victories; they just won't get any points for the season championship.

This will be the first of many rules changes that will be instituted in NASCAR as the season progresses. Some of those will be minor tweaks made to the car to improve competition while others may focus on wider ranging areas. But by defining who is a Nationwide Series driver or a Camping World Truck Series driver and who is eligible for the championship in those series should give drivers trying to get a break in NASCAR a much needed break when it comes to challenging for the championship.

One thing NASCAR won't change, however, is its emphasis on the Chase. It wants to build the season into a playoff crescendo and that is something even a driver who has never won the Chase continues to appreciate. So while there are some fans that hate the Chase and would like to do away with it, that isn't a sentiment heard among the drivers.

"I think the one I might disagree on is the Chase, taking the Chase away, because I think if you went back to the old point system, I think that we'd be bored in a hurry with the fact that somebody just won the championship with about four races to go, and we went down to Homestead and we didn't have a championship on the line with maybe three or four drivers battling it out," Gordon said. "And I think that's pretty exciting, and I think that's great for the sport.

"And even though I wish they would have incorporated -- implemented it about two or three years later so I could have maybe gotten a couple more championships, I still -- I'm a big supporter of the Chase."

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