Bobby Labonte beat Rusty Wallace at the Brickyard--or did he?
Rusty Wallace lost the Brickyard 400 to Bobby Labonte last
Saturday but didn't lose any ground to him in the season points
standings. How could that be? Labonte earned 175 points for his
win and five bonus points for leading at least one lap. Wallace
got 170 for being the runner-up, five for leading a lap and five
more for leading the most laps.
NASCAR's points system, which was last tweaked in 1975, differs
radically from those used by Formula One and CART. Whereas NASCAR
awards points to all 45 starters, only the top six finishers get
points in F/1, with a win worth nearly twice as much as a
runner-up finish (10 points to six). CART awards points to the
top 12 finishers, with the winner getting 20 and the runner-up
16. (CART also gives one-point bonuses to the pole winner and to
the driver who leads the most laps during a race.)
"We run short tracks, road courses, superspeedways and
intermediate tracks," says NASCAR CEO Mike Helton. "It's a
diverse series, and the idea is to reward consistency through the
whole year." But the system can lead to head-scratching results
(Bill Elliott won 11 of 28 races in 1985 and lost the title to
Darrell Waltrip, who won three) and conservative (read: dull)
racing, as leading drivers have little incentive to take chances
that might endanger their points position. The average payout
difference between the winner and the runner-up is around $74,000
per Winston Cup event. The payout difference between the winner
and the runner-up in the points race is $1.9 million.
So what if NASCAR made its system more top-heavy? "The simplest
way to do it is give the championship to the guy who wins the
most races," says John Andretti. "That would put a premium on
winning and pretty much make second place what it really is--the
first loser." Helton says NASCAR is quite happy with the points
distribution. But what if, for argument's sake, NASCAR adopted a
scheme that roughly doubled the points handed out under the CART
system, since a stock car field is roughly double the size of a
CART field. Give the winner 40 points and the runner-up 30, then
have the interval gradually decrease so that the top 20 drivers
receive points? Throw in one-point bonuses for winning the pole
and leading the most laps.
Such a system wouldn't drastically alter the top of this season's
standings. Labonte is clearly the best driver right now, no
matter how you add it up. But Mike Skinner, owner of no wins and
only two top five finishes, would no longer be ahead of Matt
Kenseth (one victory), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (two) and Jeremy
More important, changing the system would make the points race
more competitive. Barring an injury or accident that would have
knocked Jarrett out of a race, it was mathematically impossible
for him to lose his lead in 15 of the final 16 races last season.
However, under the modified points system described above,
Jarrett (who had won four times) would have had only a one-point
lead on seven-time winner Jeff Gordon with five races left in the
season, and would have lost the title to Labonte had he not
finished higher than 11th in the season's final race.
Waltrip's Victory Tour
Saying Goodbye Just Got Easier
When Darrell Waltrip decided to call his 29th and final Winston
Cup season the Victory Tour, his inspiration probably wasn't the
Jacksons' 1984 tour of the same name, an underwhelming journey
that began a few months after Michael's hair had caught fire
during the filming of a Pepsi commercial. But the Victory Tour
logo that adorns Waltrip's Ford does feature flames rather
prominently, and last week, like Jacko's before it, Waltrip's
Victory Tour featured some goofy '80s dancing.
During qualifying for the Brickyard 400 on Thursday, DW sent a
message to his many critics by breaking Jeff Gordon's year-old
Indianapolis Motor Speedway record with a lap of 180.923 mph. The
53-year-old Waltrip pulled down pit road pumping his fist out the
window, slapping five with his brother Tito--er, Michael. He got
out of the car, mugged for the crowd for a good five minutes and
launched into an impromptu version of the Icky Shuffle, which was
last performed by Waltrip--or by anyone else, for that matter--in
February 1989, when he won his only Daytona 500.
Waltrip has had few occasions to dance this year. His final
season was intended to be a celebration of his driving
accomplishments, but instead Waltrip has found himself taking
heat in the press and around the garage for his mere presence on
the track. Waltrip had failed to qualify for three of the
season's first 19 races, and made the field for a fourth by
buying a ride in the Coca Cola 600 from upstart driver Carl Long.
His best finish heading into Indy was 22nd, giving Waltrip and
his supporters cause to be defensive. "It's ridiculous that
anybody would criticize a man that has meant so much to his
sport," says Michael Waltrip. "No one criticized Jack Nicklaus
for being 13 over par and missing the cut in the U.S. Open after
getting an exemption to get into it. [The fans and media] were
just reveling in the fact that they might have been watching Jack
walk up the 18th fairway for the last time. He wasn't
competitive. That wasn't what it was about."
But Darrell, who owns 84 wins and three Winston Cup titles, has
continued to believe that he could be competitive given the right
ride. "This has been the toughest struggle," says his wife,
Stevie. "To still have the ability and for people not to believe
in him, that's probably the worst thing to happen to Darrell."
If that was the worst, then the events of last week had to be
among the best. Even though Ricky Rudd knocked him off the pole,
Waltrip seemed deeply moved by the site of his accomplishment
and the raucous reception it received. "The greatest drivers in
the world have walked these hallowed grounds," he said. "That
does something to me. It puts a lump in my throat."
Shortly after the green flag fell on the 400 last Saturday,
though, Waltrip made like Jackson and began moon walking. He slid
from fourth to 23rd in only eight laps following the first round
of pit stops. But just when it looked as if the skeptics were
going to have a field day--and plenty of people at the Brickyard
were offering over/unders on when DW would get lapped--Waltrip
made a respectable charge, finishing 11th and giving the Victory
Tour a measure of validation. "There are people been sayin', 'Ol'
DW needs to quit, he shouldn't race anymore,'" said a grinning
Waltrip. "Now there's a shadow of a doubt."
There's a Will, And a Way
Responding to the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin in crashes
at the New Hampshire International Speedway in the past three
months, NASCAR took action last week to address what is believed
to have been the cause of both fatal wrecks: a stuck throttle.
Every Winston Cup car must now be equipped with a stopper to keep
the throttle from opening too far, to the point where it might
stick in the open position, as well as an engine-kill switch on
the steering wheel within reach of the driver's thumb.
Points Well Taken
If NASCAR gave more weight to wins, as CART and Formula One do,
Dale Jarrett (above) might not have won the 1999 points title.
Here's how last year's top finishers would have fared under rival
points systems, including SI's* (points in parentheses).
DRIVER [1999 WINS] NASCAR SI WAY CART FORMULA ONE
Dale Jarrett  1 (5,262) 1 (749) 2 (364) 3 (115)
Bobby Labonte  2 (5,061) 2 (728) 1 (366) 1 (124)
Mark Martin  3 (4,943) 4 (646) 4 (305) 4 (88)
Tony Stewart  4 (4,774) 5 (571) 6 (247) 6 (68)
Jeff Burton  5 (4,733) 6 (529) 5 (248) 5 (84)
Jeff Gordon  6 (4,620) 3 (665) 3 (326) 2 (120)
*Winner, 40 points; second place, 30; gradually decreasing
points for third through 20th; one point each to the pole sitter
and the driver with the most laps led
Consecutive Winston Cup starts by Terry Labonte before he was
forced to sit out last week's Brickyard 400 while recovering
from a concussion and a broken right leg. His streak began at
Riverside, Calif., on Jan. 14, 1979.