Last night was President Obama's State of the Union address, a chance to impress voters and the American population with his next referendum as the 2012 election looms 22 months away.
Brian France? He doesn't have that kind of time. A misstep in tonight's NASCAR State of the Union address, perhaps his most critical since ascending to CEO seven years ago, would send fans and wary sponsors running for the exits before the Daytona 500 even starts. With France expected to announce the most sweeping change to the points system since 1975, fans in my inbox were treating the adjustment at about a 40 percent approval rating, far below what's needed for alienated supporters to turn around and give this ailing sport a second chance.
So France must address that while explaining what steps the sport is taking to address a myriad of fan frustrations, such as a homogenous CoT, a playoff system that's struggled to catch hold and racing that, too often, doesn't get good enough anymore until the final 50 laps.
Can he do it? Believe or not, this oft-criticized head man has a better chance than you think. It was last year when NASCAR's VP Robin Pemberton came up with the "Have at it, Boys" quote, a back-to-basics mentality that served the sport well in competition that definitely took a step back in the right direction in 2010. But gentle optimism or a simple one-liner won't be enough this time. The woes this sport is facing are years in the making, leaving peoples' patience on thin ice and France in need of an A+, rabble-rousing performance the second he steps on stage at a venue touched with irony itself: the financially ailing NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Three days into the sport's 2011 media tour, the message from the ground has been pushy. Drivers, car owners, whoever's at the podium has urged the media to "write positive" and put the brakes on criticism to help stop the bleeding. But the ethics of journalism is to write about what's really happening, how people are reacting, and the true story beyond the PR spin. Only if France hits the right note with everyone from President Mike Helton to Joe Schmo watching on his couch will some form of optimism take hold.
Fingers crossed. In the meantime, we'll take these fingers and type answers to your reaction on NASCAR's pending changes. Too many great responses, too little space this week, but don't stop writing in: email@example.com and @NASCARBowles on Twitter is how you do it. The regular mailbag will return in earnest next Wednesday...
As I see it, there are two major problems with NASCAR's current format: the Chase sucks, and most of the time nobody races until the end of the race. I can't see the powers that be abandoning their bad idea of a postseason (or, for that matter, abandoning their ideas to make it worse) but I had an idea on making drivers actually race the entire time. What do you think would happen if there were bonus points available for each driver's average position? Say, for example, that if a driver averaged a top-10 position through the race, there were 5 bonus points, and if their average position was 11-15, they could get three? I can't see many drivers content to fool around in 25th place until 50 to go if they were eliminating a chance of a boost. To be really blunt, I haven't watched more than two or three races wire-to-wire each year for the past five or so, things have gotten so boring. If something could incentivize drivers to push the envelope the entire time, I would be more interested in watching the entire thing.
I know the obvious objection is that they're trying to simplify the points system. I don't see the downside of a slightly more complex points system as being anywhere near as bad as the downside of thirty crappy races each year... and we both know that the Chase mostly invalidates the points system, so my gut is saying this could improve things.-- Timothy Miller, Raleigh, N.C.
The first part of that last sentence emphasizes the majority opinion I've been getting from fans. To them, bad racing is more important than an ugly championship battle, because even when the points get out of hand, two drivers duking it out for a win can still be enough to keep people coming back every Sunday. NASCAR needs to address that problem, providing incentives either throughout the race or beyond the points to keep drivers fighting hard from the drop of the green to the checkered every week.
Your thoughts on bonus points for average position during the race? Well, then that's not really simplifying the system, is it. Giving them for winning, top 2 or even top-5 finishes throughout the course of certain stretches are on thing, but when you spread out the numbers all the way through the top 15, well, guess what: you have the point system we do now, even more complex and harder for fans to understand.
Good column, Tom. The way I see it, changing to the system being floated now would make things worse, not better. This is something I've posted on an Internet board before that is apropos here:
The flaw in NASCAR's point system is that it punishes a bad finish more than it rewards a good finish. Let's look at Terry Labonte's championship over Jeff Gordon in 1996:
Terry Labonte had 21 top 5 and 24 top 10s in 31 races.
Jeff Gordon had 21 top 5's and 24 top 10s in 31 races.
The difference: Jeff Gordon had 17 top 3's (10 wins, 3 seconds, 4 thirds), Terry Labonte had 14 top 3's (2 wins, 7 seconds, 5 thirds).
Jeff's 7 non Top-10 finishes: 42,40,37,34,33,31,12
Terry's 7 non Top-10 finishes: 34,26,24,24,24,21,16
Who had the better season? Jeff, but Terry won the championship because when he had bad luck and finished out of the top 10 it was later in the race and he finished in the 20s. When Jeff had bad luck and finished out of the top 10 it was early in the race and he finished in the 30s - even had a couple of 40s. When push came to shove, Jeff won the race or finished in the top 3, while Terry settled for a top 5. The bad finishes were punished more than the good finishes rewarded.
I would propose a points floor at 30th and pay everyone the same points from there on back. Face it, if the guys going for a championship finish lower than 30th, it's bad luck. The rest of the points would stay the same, but I would pay 4th 165, 3rd 175, 2nd 190, and 1st 215. Bonus points remain the same.
An alternative solution would be to do like early Formula 1 and only count the best "X" finishes, enabling a driver to throw out his worst 3 or 4.
I would always take any proposed system, apply it to 1996 and see who comes out on top to see if it's a good one or not. In 1975, NASCAR wanted more drivers competing the full schedule and a points system fans could understand, so they designed a system for that and succeeded. What they need to do now is decide what to reward and build the system around that.-- Randall Treadwell, Cordova, Tenn.
Great points, excellent analysis of how DNF's and luck have affected the title races with or without the Chase. Note that this new system, depending on the bonus points, could reward consistency more than the old. Perfect example: 10th place gets you 134 points, 72 percent of what you'd get if you'd won the race (185 points). In the new system, the same finish would get you 79 percent (34 points versus 43), giving a gentle nudge towards stroking it over risking it all for a win.
So how many bonus points do you have to give? To make those percentages more favorable than the old system, you'd need to give out at least five; ten would be ideal. Those are the magic numbers you need to look for from Mr. France tonight.
I read your article about the proposed point system (basically 1 point per position) and think I have a much better idea. First, they should reduce the field from 43 to 40 cars. Then, only assign points (5 per position) to the top 30 finishers, so 30th place gets 5, and 1st gets 150. Next, award bonus points -- 5 to every driver that leads two consecutive green-flag laps (rather than leading any lap, and eliminating the "stay out for a lap" points), 15 for the driver leading the most laps, and 25 for the race winner. This means the race winner would gain 50 points on 2nd place. This should be enough incentive for a driver to race for the win rather than taking it easy, which is what fans want to watch, anyway. It should also address the "start and park" drivers as well.
Oh, I've found a solution for testing as well. They should assign testing dates to OWNERS, not teams. That way, a small team (Wood brothers, for example) would get the same number of testing days as a large team (like Hendrick).-- Craig
Not bad, although I think there's a risk in making the system too complicated. That's the lone problem I have with rewarding points early in the race: fans just won't understand it. I think money is better, maybe a $100,000 bonus for who leads at lap 50, 100, 150, etc.? You may ask where NASCAR could find that kind of cash ... for the answer, look at the final page of their TV contract and the numbers they're actually pulling in.
On the testing idea, I really like it if there's one tweak: assign dates to owners but limit them to one car. If the Wood Brothers are fighting five teams at the same track, all of them sharing information -- who do you think wins that battle? That's like asking David to beat Goliath, then handing the big guy a machine gun.
Yeah, make winning races even more insignificant than it already is now, that's the ticket... what a joke. F1 has it right, only give points for the top third of the field, a LARGE gap between first and second (25-18)... and the drivers literally nearly kill each other to win, and yet... it comes down to the wire every year, with consistently in the years since "The Chase" much more competitive finishes for the title than NASCAR... and they don't have to invent a half-assed pathetic laughable "Chase" that makes the first two-thirds of the schedule virtually irrelevant to do it.
I couldn't be more disgusted, more disappointed, or more flat out pissed off. This is the last straw for me, I just don't care anymore... NASCAR's pathetic Chase and points system are simply no longer defensible, I give up.-- JonR, Waite Park, Minn.
See what I said about Brian having his work cut out for him?
I am a NASCAR fan for over 40 years and can't believe I watch a race today in three segments. Never was like that when I was younger. My suggestion in how to change the point system has never been mentioned before as far as I know. Points would be awarded at each quarter point of the race. At the end of the race, all four quarters are added up and that would be your point total. Sure you can award a few extra points for leading the first three quarters and extra points for winning. What this does is eliminate the boring middle part of the race. Drivers will be trying to be the leader at each quarter and another benefit would be that drivers can go all out in the last portion of the race knowing that if they blew up or crashed, they would still have the points from the first three quarters when they were in the front of the pack.-- John Nickleford, Toronto
A very, very popular suggestion over e-mail this week. Again, I'm all for it if you can keep it simple. What about the 43-to-1 point system, but a 10-8-6-4-2 bonus for who's in the top 5 at every corner of the race? Is that too complicated? Let me know.
Hi, yeah, sorry, I guess you never heard me say it, NASCAR'S POINT SYSTEM IS TOO COMPLICATED. I guess I'm one of the dummies, because I could never understand where a driver was in the standings, why that drivers has those particular points, and why they even got a point of leading a lap. Big deal, you lead a lap, the GOAL is to WIN the race. Who cares how many laps you lead. Who cares that for one brief Yellow Flag, you lead a lap. If my voice has any reason... change it to the proposed system. Get rid of the bonus points and just have 44 cars racing their seat cushions off to WIN THE RACE.-- Eric Nunes, Boise, Idaho
Time to give that 40% minority their due. Point taken, Eric, and you weren't the only one happy...
That would be a lot easier for us simple folks to keep track of our drivers! I think it would make the races more exciting to watch toward the end...-- Richard Bishop
There are quite a few of you out there, Richard. Me? I like my points a little more complex, as long as it spices up the racing.
With regard to the points 43 for winning to 1 point for last place, an extra point for leading a lap, 5 bonus for leading the most laps and 5 bonus points for winning the pole and 2 bonus points for the quickest pit stop. For any driver or pit crew that commits a major infraction it is a deduction of 25 points for the race in question and no points earned for the race.
-- Rick Rucker, Oak Island, N.C.
I follow NASCAR, but don't live it. The point system to me and most sports-loving fans is stupid. Do MLB, NFL, etc get bonus points for leading at some point during the game? No. You want to make it easier? Wherever you finish is where you get points, no bonus for leading a lap. And please reward the winner of the race! NASCAR fans always yell it is about being consistent, not who wins. Huh? It is a race; you don't get medals for finishing 4th in every race in the Olympics. How about this: 100 pts for first, 75 for second, 50 for third, 45 for fourth, 44 for fifth, 43 for sixth, etc. If I remember correctly, there was a time when a driver won 4 of the first 8 races and was in, like, 4th place in the standings. NASCAR friends say well he finished bad in the others so he isn't consistent. Well he consistently won half the races!!! That is why I would rather watch barrel jumping than figure skating. If you jump the most barrels you win, that is easy. Trying to figure out scoring systems, forget it.-- Mark Klumpp, Reinholds, Pa.
That would be Jeff Gordon you're referring to. He won four of the first eight races in 1997, led a whopping 789 laps in that span (for comparison's sake, only five drivers led more during the ENTIRE 2010 season) but was third in points based on an engine-related DNF. Head-scratcher, for sure, although he did go on to win the championship that year by a whisker.
They (NASCAR) have -- almost -- got it. I like the "one point for each final place" system. A tweak that would increase the competitiveness throughout the race: Only the Top 20 get points. So, first gets 20 points, 2nd gets 19, etc. Five points for a win would then make a big difference. Add 2 points for most laps led. No points for only leading one lap.
Add 5 points for qualifying 1st & 3 points for qualifying 2nd. Eliminate the Top 35 automatic qualifiers (borrowing this idea from the ESPN columnist).
Make the Chase 20 drivers. Folks, if your favorite can't get into the Top 20, it's time to find a new favorite. (I know, Dale Jr. may still be on the outside looking in. Maybe he needs a "Notre Dame" rule like in college football "for the good of the sport".)-- Darrell (Ledfut) Robinson
20 people in the Chase! Either you're a closet Paul Menard fan, or you haven't added up the sponsored, full-time teams as of late. There's only 30 capable of competing full-time each week with proper funding ... so that means 67 percent of the field makes the playoffs? Too much.
My big issue remains the Chase. It is a playoff without being a playoff. It's a playoff because you compete for a portion of the season to determine those select few who can compete for the championship. But the championship races (the Chase) are the same old same old. In fact, I'd say it's one reason JJ has one 5 in a row. Doing well in 10 races is easier than 26, or 36.
Anyway, the Chase should be a knockout. The lowest finishing driver of the 12 in the Chase is eliminated after each race. You would get to Homestead with 3 drivers left. The top finisher wins the title. That way, each race is a go or go home deal. You get no credit for what you did previously.-- Jeff Spoehr, Neenah, WI
That's an interesting point lost in all of this mess: fans' dissatisfaction with the Chase. Unless there's a big surprise tonight, NASCAR is supposedly not going to make any changes to that part of the system, throwing out the elimination format that had gained popularity behind the scenes. I thought that was a bad idea to begin with, but many others were jumping on board. Could that decision to push points reform over playoff elimination backfire?
What do you think of the top 10 in points and anyone outside of the top 10 who has won a race? A win and you're in type thing.-- Biff Bischoff, Reading, Calif.
Now that I like, a small tweak that would make Richmond meaningful for anyone from the 11th-place man in points to an underdog team willing to try fuel strategy, track position under yellow, anything to try to sneak into the playoffs.
Speaking of winning...
Junior Johnson, Cale, Dale, Petty? They didn't race for points. When they hit the track, it was to win. If winning isn't the objective then it's just a bunch of guys making left turns.-- Patrick Mottonen
Amen; the perfect point to end this conversation on. Finally, for this week's "out of left field" e-mail, we go back to Boise's Eric from earlier...
P.S. I know this is off subject, but did you see Al Davis the other day? Talk about the Walking Dead. Holy Toledo how is that guy still alive?
When I look at Al Davis, I think of one thing: God, I hope that's not Mark Martin in 2040, still trying to drive on Retirement Tour XXXV without knowing which way is up when he walks out of bed in the morning! Rick Hendrick wouldn't let that happen ... right?
Last Week's Trivia Question: Wow, triple-digit responses on the mailbag and no one got the trivia question? I'm surprised. To refresh your memory, I asked about the one 1974 race that holds a record which still stands today: It's that year's Daytona 500, which Richard Petty snagged after a standard-setting 59 lead changes throughout the event. What about this year? If all goes well (and that means virtually wreck-free,) I could easily see 70, 80, heck even 90 lead changes under these rules.
This Week's Trivia Question: Michael Waltrip announced he'll go for his 25th consecutive Daytona 500 start this weekend ... but that's not even close to the record. Who holds it?
Tweet Of The Week: "http://yfrog.com/gyxh5oxj juggling @redbull cans for @toyotaracing last night. No cans were harmed during this process." -- He's ... back? Acknowledging @BrianLVickers, the latest in a long list of appearances after officially returning from blood clots to race in 2011 -- something everyone in the racing community is happy to see.