Has NASCAR hit on right championship formula?

By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 31, 2017 at 9:34 PM
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It's been a rough ride for NASCAR since the old-fashioned methodology for determining the champion of its premier series was ditched in 2003.

Multiple formats have been used for the number of drivers participating, how drivers qualify for the championship and exactly how a driver wins it.

As complicated as the current format might be with its stage points and bonus points, the core idea of what is now known as the playoffs might actually become a long-standing solution.

Here are some reasons why the current playoff format -- as opposed to The Chase -- might fare well over the long haul.

1. The system is fair. If a driver has an excellent regular season, one failed $5 part, a blown engine or somebody else's crash at Talladega will not necessarily end a title run. That's because of the bonus points system.

The format still allows a driver who does not run all the races to make the playoffs and win the championship. Is that fair? Yes, given how far behind the driver might be on bonus points compared to those who run all the races.

2. There's a "wild card" element that sustains tension and excitement. Going into Sunday's race at Darlington and the final regular season event at Richmond, there are at least eight drivers vying for the final three spots. I would not count out Trevor Bayne, but nobody would be totally surprised if Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Erik Jones make the Top 16.

3. There's no sandbagging. Under the "win and you're in" format that had no bonus points, a team could spend the summer experimenting in preparation for the postseason without paying a penalty. Under the current format, that means giving up some bonus points, which are too valuable to disregard.

4. There's a legacy in the new system. When Matt Kenseth won the championship in 2003 under the season-long points system, he and crew chief Robbie Reiser were roundly criticized for coasting to the title after one victory. The Chase was born the following year.

Many fans hated The Chase. But it was necessary if fans as well as the rest of the sports world were going to recognize NASCAR's season-long trophy winner as a legitimate racing champion.

The anti-Jimmie Johnson crowd might disagree that the new format was better. But each year the system was the same for all drivers and Johnson best figured out how to win the trophy against some excellent teams and driving talent. On the flipside, Kenseth has yet to win a title under the 10-race postseason format.

Where's the legacy? For the first time since 2003, there will be a regular season points champion, who will earn 15 bonus points for his consistency over the first 26 races. The runner-up will get 10. Consistency over time has, well, a bonus.

5. Stage racing improves the show. Week in and week out, the stage racing format that generates additional regular season points and bonus playoff points sustains more interest. It also guarantees that drivers intent on winning a title or making it to the playoffs -- which is a big deal to sponsors -- must be hammer down every lap all season.

Cutting down on "the strokers" at Talladega is the least appreciated element of stage racing. In the spring, drivers who ran at the back to avoid accidents risked missing stage points that translate into a spot in the playoffs or bonus points at the end of the regular season. This fall, drivers who elect to race at the back will risk not making it out of the second round.

6. At long last the hokum is gone. There's no glorified name for the different playoff segments and The Chase moniker has, thankfully, been dropped. What about using race-offs instead of playoffs? The necessary hyphenation alone indicates it's an uncommon term and thus more hokum. Besides, it sounds like two drivers racing a quarter mile instead of multiple drivers racing for a major league championship.

7. The system promotes itself. As opposed to NFL national event broadcasters, the TV announcers for NASCAR events see themselves as promoters for NASCAR. The sanctioning body's network TV partners are just that and it tends to warp the viewpoint from the broadcast booth, where high-paid guys walk the narrow line between shill and observer. Too often the results spill into hype-like overkill.

Under the current playoff system, the numbers tell the tale in a way that doesn't require booster points from broadcasters. The dramatic tension is inherent when, say, a driver like Kasey Kahne puts himself into position to make the playoffs during the Brickyard 400. Or when Martin Truex, Jr. wins another stage to gain yet another bonus point. When a rookie like Daniel Suarez or Erik Jones wins his first bonus point, well, enough said.

8. Complication is a good thing. In a sports world gone bonkers on statistics, particularly baseball, it doesn't hurt to have multiple avenues for scoring different kinds of points. The fans who like racing have long since absorbed the methodology. For those who might only pay attention casually, the stage points system adds a little allure to the idea that stock car racing is complicated -- which it is.

9. NASCAR's playoffs borrow well. It's helpful for NASCAR to be similar to other major league sports if the sanctioning body wants to be regarded that way. Often enough, Monster Energy Cup races are among the top-rated sports events on TV, regardless of the comparisons to NASCAR's previous eye-popping numbers.

On the other hand, the NASCAR method of regular season and postseason does not borrow excessively from other sports that require a win to advance or use multi-game series to determine champions.

10. There's guaranteed excitement at the season finale. There are purists who object to having a lone race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway determine the champion from among four drivers. Thus far, it has required a driver to win the race in order to win the title, which is hardly a bad thing. It does incorporate the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s when the championship invariably came down to the final race of the season, which helped grow NASCAR's popularity.

All other sports have their formats of "winner takes all", and so should NASCAR.

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