When Kevin Harvick won at Fontana two weeks ago, he vaulted six places in the points standings to ninth, making up the points he lost when he blew an engine in the Daytona 500. By winning Sunday at Martinsville, he moved up another four positions to fifth.
When Kyle Busch won at Bristol on March 20, he gained eight positions, to sixth. That made up for his huge, 13-place drop when he finished 38th with a blown engine at Las Vegas.
Fluidity in the standings has been the most glaring aspect of the new, simplified system NASCAR put in place in 2011, which awards points in single-point increments -- i.e. first place gets 43 points while 43rd place gets one point. There's also a three-point bonus for winning the race, along with one bonus point for leading a lap and one for leading the most laps. Hit that trifecta and a race winner can score 48 points.
"I don't know mathematically how that has worked," Carl Edwards said when asked about the gains and drops drivers have experienced with the new system. "I don't know if it's because other guys have had bad races or if they have just run that well. I just have to look at it, but it's just math. Somebody has probably done all the math and figured out what the exact differences are in the points, but it looks like -- from the outside -- the big difference in points is at the tail-end of the field. That ratio from 43rd to first is much greater than it used to be, but around 20th-25th it's almost the same."
It's obvious the new system has had an impact. Under the old points system that was used from 1975 until last year with a few variations (bonus points, etc.), the points were weighted with first place getting 185 and last place 34. So even if a driver had a blown engine and finished last, he still got 34 points as opposed to one. Positions 1-5 were separated by five-point increments, positions 6-10 by four-points increments and 11-43 by three. Five bonus points were paid for leading a lap and another five for leading the most laps. Beginning in 2007, 10 bonus points were awarded for victories, which would help in the seeding for the Chase. Now, it's three bonus points.
"I think everybody is still kind of understanding the ways you can gain or lose from this point system, but, really, it just looks like it's the bad races to me," Edwards said. "If I messed up our engine and we don't catch it and we blow up on lap 50, and the guys who are running second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth in points finish in the top six or seven, it's going to really change the way our points look for us. I think that's the biggest danger."
During the Chase Era (2004-present) nobody has understood what it takes to win the championship better than Jimmie Johnson, who has won five consecutive titles. But he actually called the new points system "daunting" when he tried to evaluate it earlier this year. Looking at things now that the season is six races old, he sees drivers out of the top 10 that he believes can make it back to reach the Chase.
"When you're 20 [points] out or something, your first reaction is that's not bad; 20 out is the way I've always known it. A few spots, lead a lap, you're golden," Johnson said. "Now you look at it and say wait a second. One point to lead a lap, one point for a position, that's 20 points and real tough to make it up in a week. So it's just trying to come to grips with how it works out. If you're 20 down, you're really a couple hundred out or something. So, it's just getting used to that format.
"So, I guess the reaction between the two thoughts is 'Whoa, I'm in trouble.'"
There is a bit of a change this year with the top 10 drivers in points making the 12-driver Chase field and the two final positions going to the two drivers with the most wins in positions 11-20 in the standings.
So after what race do drivers need to start worrying about where they are in the points?
"I think you actually want to try to do that sooner rather than later," new points leader Kyle Busch said. "It's about Charlotte time -- about the end of May when you get into the season and you look at where you're at. You're about going to be where you're going to be when you come down to Chase time."
"I don't even watch or even pay attention to them right now. If you have good results then they'll take care of themselves."
Last week came news that former Formula One World Champion Kimi Raikkonen was ready to follow Juan Pablo Montoya into NASCAR with a Camping World Truck race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Montoya isn't the only Sprint Cup driver who welcomes the Finland native into the uniquely American world of NASCAR.
Kyle Busch is so interested in the 2007 Formula One World Champion that he has signed him to a 3-5 race deal to drive his trucks in the NCWTS this season.
"I think it's cool," said Busch. "I think that some of these guys from the Formula 1, or from the open wheel background I should say, trying to take a step in NASCAR and see how it is pretty neat. It kind of gives a world presence to NASCAR. Everybody thinks that Formula 1 is the World Series -- I don't mean that in baseball terms, I just mean that in the racing world globe. I think that NASCAR, as big as it is, a lot of drivers want to see how they can do over here and how they can have a feel for the race car over here. I think it's neat and I hope that he gets the things worked out that he wants worked out and that he can come over here and run some Trucks or run whatever he is going to run."
It won't take Raikkonen long to get a taste of the NASCAR machine as he was scheduled to test at Gresham Motorsports Park, a Georgia half-mile, on Monday.
"I am really excited to have the opportunity to start my venture into NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports," Raikkonen said. "Kyle is one of the best in NASCAR, and being able to draw on his knowledge will be a valuable asset as I make my transition to a new form of racing. He has put together an experienced team that builds fast race trucks. "I look forward to being a part of a team that has proven to be a winner on and off the racetrack."
Montoya was Raikkonen's teammate at McLaren before Montoya bolted for NASCAR after the 2006 United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"People are watching," Montoya said. "Over the last few years when I came over people started paying attention to how I ran and I think a lot of people got hooked on it. I still receive e-mails from people from Formula One, good luck in the race, great qualifying. It's like oh, you're paying attention. That is surprising. When you're young you take every lap like it's the last lap. When you go out and try to do that here you're not going to blend in and you're not going to do well. When you learn to take care of the car, be smart and make moves when you have to make moves, or learn to give up a place or two when you have to, it's part of learning to be in NASCAR. When you understand the system it works really well.
"I'm happy (he came to NASCAR when he did) and wouldn't change it for anything."
Other NASCAR Cup drivers are excited about the prospect of a Formula One World Champion joining the sport.
"I think Kimi Raikkonen has got enough experience to debut at a place like that (Charlotte Motor Speedway)," Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said. "I'm sure they will go and get him a good amount of seat time and Kyle's trucks are amazing. It is great equipment. You couldn't ask to be in better equipment there. I think it will be fine. It should work out great. I'm not really that surprised. I think that we have great popularity and there's tons of intrigue and it's natural for any kind of race car driver to know what the other half lives like, you know?"
Getting a former Formula One World Champion to join NASCAR is another coup for the most popular form of racing in the United States. The addition of Montoya undoubtedly gave NASCAR more worldwide attention and credibility. The arrival of Raikkonen will further solidify the stature of NASCAR among racing elites.