Monday, January 12, 2004

NASCAR stuff

Team news is fairly light at the moment, in advance of next month's Daytona 500, but back at NASCAR Headquarters weird things are starting to happen. First, a couple of things worth knowing:

  • After umpteen years, R.J. Reynolds had responded to pressure and pulled its Winston sponsorship from the series championship. They have been replaced by Nextel. In a strangely Orwellian development, all past champions are now referred to as Nextel Cup Champions, even though they won the Winston Cup at the time.
  • The Winston Cup points system was developed in 1973 to encourage consistency. In an effort to make sure that the top teams showed up every week, a driver gets a lot of points merely for qulaifying for the race, and a slowish escalation for finishing higher up the order. Nowadays, sponsor requirements mean that teams aren't going to miss a race for any reason, but the points system doesn't reflect this.
  • As a result of the skewed point system, last season's Cup Champion won significantly fewer races than the sixth place finisher. This has led to loud calls for change in certain corners of the community.
  • Football, basketball, baseball, and hockey all have playoffs.

All of these factors seem to be playing into NASCARs rumored decision to update the points system, in a strange way. Basically, they are going to take the last 10 races of the 36-race season and turn it into some kind of post-season shootout among the top ten drivers in the standings at the end of 26 races. Oh, and maybe some others too. The announcment about the details is anticipated next week, along with some indication of exactly why drivers outside the top ten would want to participate in a now meaningless race.

The oddest part of the plan is that it apparently attempts to emulate the excitement surrounding "Stick and Ball" sports at the end of the season without considering that there is a fundamental difference between racing and other team sports. In the other sports, two competitors out of (in the case of the NFL) 32 participate in each competition. At the end of the regular season, they each have W/L records, but the best may not have had head-to-head competition. So a playoff format enables the arguments to be settled. Indianapolis deserves to advance and Denver or Kansas City doesn't because the Colts beat them straight up in a head-to-head battle. In racing, however, every car is competing with every other car every week. In the case of NASCAR that means that any given week there are 43 cars on track, each one racing with all the others. The need for specialized head-to-head competition is obviated by the structure of the sport.

Instead of this false postseason, NASCAR should just tweak the points system. In particular, they should equalize all points below, say, 30th. This would take away the incentive for a battered car to come back on track and endanger everyone else just to pick up a couple of laps and gain 5 or 6 race positions (assuming that the battering occurred in a large wreck). That would also make sure that the occasional DNF doesn't hammer an otherwise strong driver, and generally allow NASCAR to benefit from the experience of nearly every other major racing series in the world.