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Talking Points
Mark Bechtel
February 19, 2007
NASCAR's rules changes put a welcome premium on wins, but will too many contenders spoil the Chase?
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February 19, 2007

Talking Points

NASCAR's rules changes put a welcome premium on wins, but will too many contenders spoil the Chase?

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A FEW YEARS AGO, before NASCAR instituted the Chase for the Nextel Cup, driver John Andretti was talking about possible changes to the points system used to determine the series champ. "Maybe they should just give it to the guy who wins the most races," he said jokingly. But Andretti had a point. Since its inception, NASCAR has rewarded consistency. Drivers and fans blanch at the term, but points racing--racking up good finishes but, above all, not doing anything that could lead to trouble--is what wins titles. Reconciling the need for restraint with the need for speed has never been easy, which is why NASCAR's decision to tweak its points system is a wise one.

Starting this season, a win is worth an extra five points. More significant, when the Chase begins, the drivers will be seeded by number of victories rather than total points. Kasey Kahne began the 2006 Chase in 10th place; under the new system, because he'd had more wins in the first 26 races (five) than anyone else, he would have started it in first. Just how much of a disconnect has there been between winning a race and winning a title? In the last eight years only once has the driver who has taken the most checkered flags also won the Cup (Jeff Gordon in 2001). Over that same span the season's winningest driver has finished, on average, fifth in the standings. "Consistency is going to be a big part of winning the championship, but also winning races is going to be a little bigger too," says Kahne. "I think it's a neat rule."

Not so neat, though, is NASCAR's other tweak: expanding the Chase field to 12. For all of the drama racing gives fans, one thing it doesn't provide enough of is those heartbreaking moments when a big-time competitor has his season ended. (See: Stewart, Tony, 2006. The '05 Cup champ stood 11th in points after the 26-race "regular season" and missed out on the Chase.) Half the fun of a 10-team Chase was seeing which of the top contenders didn't get in.

On the other hand, expanding the field should mean harder racing year-round--especially because NASCAR's other rules changes should go a long way toward eliminating the incentive for drivers to play it safe if they're near the top of the standings. "For so many years you got to a point where you just had to protect that lead and you had to really quit racing about July," says owner Robert Yates, for whom Dale Jarrett won the 1999 title. "Now you can really return to full-blown racing."

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