Vroom For Improvement NASCAR's new math changes but does not fix its ailing scoring system

February 02, 2004

By the time the 26th race of the 36-race 2003 NASCAR season
wrapped up, Matt Kenseth had such a healthy lead over
second-place driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. that Kenseth could have
driven the next two races in a '92 Yugo and kept his advantage.
Kenseth stuck with his Ford Taurus, though, and coasted through
the last 10 events to the title--clinching it with a race to go
despite only once finishing better than sixth.

On the heels of yet another ho-hum denouement--Kenseth's title
was the fourth in five years that didn't go down to the last
event--NASCAR last week unveiled a revised system for crowning
its best driver. Now, after 26 races, only the top 10 drivers
(plus anyone within 400 points of the top) will be eligible to
win the title. They'll have their point totals adjusted so the
gap between each driver is just five points; the final 10 races
will be a shootout for the trophy.

The playoff-type system (NASCAR calls it the Chase for the
Championship) may create some autumnal excitement, but it won't
placate critics who say NASCAR doesn't sufficiently reward
winning. The old system gave the winner 175 points and the
second-place driver 170 with similarly slim margins down the
line. Last year Kenseth won just once while Ryan Newman, who won
a series-high eight races--the most anyone has won since
'98--finished sixth overall. The new setup does give winners an
extra five points, but there's now even less of an emphasis on
winning early in the season. "If you think you're solidly within
the points window they're gonna use for the playoffs, you do a
Dean Smith and go into a four corners," said driver Elliott
Sadler. That means boring races.

NASCAR says it believes more in consistency than in winning, yet
the new system rewards neither. Kenseth, who is unhappy about the
change, was highly consistent last year, finishing outside the
top 15 only twice in the first 26 races. Under the new system he
would have seen a 418-point lead cut to five. (And he would have
finished eighth in the playoff.)

NASCAR hopes its new stretch run, which begins on Sept. 19,
provides a boost when races get overshadowed by the NFL. "Having
10 guys with a shot at a championship with 10 races to go is a
story," says Michael Waltrip. "If I'm the networks, I love it. If
I'm a race fan, I love it." If only more drivers were so
enamored. --M.B.

COLOR PHOTO: DARRYL GRAHAM/AP (CAR) COLOR PHOTO: DILIP VISHWANAT/SPORTING NEWS/ICON SMI CHANGED MAN Kenseth--a steady but not spectacular champ--wouldn'thave made the top five under the revised rules.