Wednesday, January 21, 2004

NASCAR Rules

Racing is different from other sports in several ways, particularly in the means that are available to determine the best driver over the course of a season. If we look at the NFL, each week there are 16 games, and 16 winners. Over the course of a season there are 256 games and 256 winners, which allows the use of a Win/Loss record as an effective tool to determine rankings at the end of the regular season. In NASCAR, there are 36 events in a season and 36 winners, which reduces the effectiveness of a W/L record as a determining factor in the overall champion. In the NFL there are a series of tie-breaking rules that resolve the difference between two teams with identical records, but thery are rarely used. In racing, the role of the tie-breakers is replaced by the number of points awarded to each finishing position, and this is used continuously throughout the season.

Obviously, the distribution of those points is a key factor in determining what is rewarded over the course of a racing season. In Formula One, only the top 8 finishers, out of up to 24, are awarded points. This puts a premium on finishing close to the front of the pack. It also means that once a car is out of the race for some reason, there is little point in restarting and risking further damage. Up until last year NASCAR used a different system that strongly rewarded teams for showing up for the race. The largest point spread was the 40+ points from not starting the race to finishing 43rd. Then the point spread started at 3 between consecutive positions and slowly crept up to 5. This places a strong premium on coming to each race and making the field., issues that were a problem back when the system was adopted. Now the major teams can't skip a race because their sponsors require them to be there, but the old rules held sway through last year.

The new system is modeled more after a NASCAR race and consequently rewards consistency a little and end-of-the-season success a little more. If you have ever watched a race, you know that there is nearly always a yellow-flag period toward the end of the race. All of the cars are lined up nose-to-tail, and when the green flag drops again there is a sprint to the finish. Prior to this last caution period, the most important thing a driver can do is keep out of trouble and not get passed by the leader of the race. Once the final sprint starts, it's anybody's race. The new points system relfects this. If a driver is in the top ten (i.e., on the lead lap) after 26 races, he is lined up nose-to-tail with the other top ten drivers, and they engage in a 10 race sprint to the end of the season.

It seems to me that they have gone in the wrong direction. Instead of changing the points system to more closely reflect the race structure, they should have altered the race structure to (sort of) more closely resemble the points system. The whole "Lap Carefully then Sprint Madly" structure of a race is one of the chief flaws of NASCAR in my mind. It really takes strategy, car design, and engine tuning out of the picture and leaves a significant chunk of dumb luck as the deciding factor in many races. Compared to a series like F1, where there are perhaps 2 or 3 safety car periods in an entire season, the lack of emphasis on engineering and racecraft is a damn shame. In the end, however, I don't think this system will last much over a year. There are probably more than ten heavyweight cars in the series, and their sponsors are not gonig to be happy at the lack of coverage that non-top-ten cars will get in the last 10 races. And if there is one thing that you can be sure of in NASCAR, if the sponsors aren't happy, then something's gonna change.