By Matt Crossman
NASCAR loves origin stories. From the sanctioning body being born in a smoky hotel conference room in Daytona Beach to Hall of Famer Junior Johnson learning to drive hauling moonshine while outrunning law enforcement to Dale Earnhardt fleeing the textile mills of North Carolina in pursuit of racing glory, all good NASCAR stories have compelling openings.
Even NASCAR's points system has a quaint birth story. In 1974, Bob Latford worked in public relations for Atlanta Motor Speedway. NASCAR president Bill France Jr. asked him to create a new points system, because neither drivers nor fans understood the one NASCAR was using. NASCAR had used five systems in the previous nine years, and it needed to find one and stick with it.
Latford sketched out his idea on a napkin at Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach. He proposed 175 points for the winner and then decreases by five, four and three, down to 34 for 43rd. His plan gave five points to each driver who led a lap and an additional five points to the driver who led the most laps. Whichever driver accumulated the most points over the entire season was the champion.
NASCAR used Latford's system starting in 1975. In the very first season, Richard Petty won 13 races and the championship by 722 points. He could have sat out the final five races and still won the championship by 104 points. It was one of the dominant seasons that made Petty the King, and if it happened today, NASCAR -- and many fans -- would lose their minds.
Even though Petty stunk up the show that first season, Latford's system stuck. The season played out like a race. If you started out hot, you built a lead. If you faded, the field caught up to you.
In 2003, Matt Kenseth ran away with the championship -- he eliminated every other driver before the final race, and he had all but done that weeks before. The problem, some critics said, was that Kenseth won only one race.
Kenseth's championship led to a radical change in 2004, when NASCAR introduced the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Latford's scoring system remained intact, but after 26 of the 36 races, the drivers in the top 10 had their points reset for a 10-race showdown.
NASCAR made minor adjustments in the way drivers were seeded over the next few years. Prior to the 2011 season, NASCAR threw out Latford's scoring system in favor of one that gave one point per position, plus bonuses for leading one lap and leading the most.
Now the sport is reportedly planning another major overhaul. NASCAR is expected to announce this week that 16 drivers will make the Chase, with three eliminations narrowing the field until a four-driver, best-finisher-take-all final race.
The amount of change in the way the champion is determined is staggering. In 10 years, the championship has devolved from being based on performance over an entire season, to being based on 10 races, to being based on one.
And the origin story of this proposed points system is a sad commentary on the sport's direction: NASCAR is changing the entire nature of its championship in pursuit of TV ratings. To let viewership numbers determine how to crown the champion is not a sport, it's a game show, and it's not good enough.
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When the news of NASCAR's proposed changes became public last week, the public outcry was loud. That's always true when NASCAR ponders big changes, and NASCAR's critics make more noise than NASCAR's supporters. Still, the points system has been debated for 10 years, and never so much as right now. Whatever changes NASCAR makes, the controversy about how NASCAR should decide the championship is not going away.
What should be done? Keep the current system? Go back to Latford's system? Something else entirely?
I enlisted four math experts who are also NASCAR fans to draw up new points systems, from which I fashioned a final proposal.
I gave them simple instructions: The points system must reward winning and consistency while punishing poor finishes. I told them to behave as if they are starting a system from scratch, not trying to improve the existing one -- though if they chose to improve the existing one, that was fine, too. They could keep the Chase, change the Chase, create a new postseason or do none of that.
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Don Good is a professor in the educational leadership and policy analysis department at East Tennessee State. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in math and a Ph.D. in education. In 2008, he gave a presentation called "Mathematical Applications of NASCAR" at the Tennessee Mathematics Teachers' Association Annual Conference, one of many talks and articles he has created about NASCAR.
Good also is on the Executive committee of the Fan Advisory Board at Bristol Motor Speedway and has consulted with the track on data collection and analysis. He is a hardcore and longtime NASCAR fan.
Good's proposal features no Chase or postseason. He says trying to manufacture a narrow points race runs counter to the sport's long devotion to awarding the championship to the driver who succeeds over the long haul of the entire schedule. "If every championship race is great, than none is," he said.
Good's proposal starts at the bottom and works up. The difference between last (43rd) and next to last (42nd) is one point -- one and two. The difference between 42nd and 41st is two (two and four), between 41st and 40th is 3 (four and seven), and so on. That formula leads to 862 for second place, and Good proposes a huge jump for the winner -- 1,000 points.
Good's top 10 would look like this:
That last point is crucial. One big criticism of the racing in the last few years is that too many drivers are "points racing" -- driving conservatively in order to get the most points possible. Good's system offers greater rewards for risk taking.
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Diandra Leslie-Pelecky has a Ph.D. in condensed matter physics from Michigan State and has been a physics professor for 20 years. She wrote "The Physics of NASCAR: The Science Behind the Speed," one of the most charming and informative books ever written about the sport. She runs a blog (http://www.buildingspeed.org/) at which she explains (among other things) what makes cars go fast and what slows them down.
She sees a NASCAR race as an event at least as much as it is a sport because what makes NASCAR great far transcends what happens on the track. When you ask people about their experiences at racetracks, they don't talk about the points race. They talk about campfires and cornhole and the crazies who caravan to every corner of the country. That's not to say the points race is not important. It's just not nearly as important as NASCAR's incessant tinkering with it suggests. "It's a social thing we do. Not every race we have is going to be interesting," she said.
Leslie-Pelecky says the champion should be whoever has the strongest 36-race season, not whoever survives NASCAR's gimmicky setup. She's not married to any particular structure, but like Good, she wants the increase in points to grow as a driver moves to the front (see chart for an example). She would cut off points at 30th place.
"It all ought to be about a cumulative season. It's the ups and downs, the coming back from a terrible finish," she says. "Go back to real old school. Realize that it's 10 times harder to be in the top 10 than the top 20."
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Molly Fisher, an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Kentucky, has a Ph.D. in mathematics education. She grew up in North Carolina watching races with her dad. Along with Leslie-Pelecky and others, she developed high school math lessons around NASCAR themes. One of the lessons involved the points system. Students were given a points total and results from five races and tasked with figuring out what the points system was.
Fisher likes the Chase and wants to keep it. She doesn't want to see drivers dominate a season and waltz to the championship. She likened a driver coasting to the final few races with the title well in hand to one of her students blowing off a final because he or she already had a good grade wrapped up. Still, she has ideas on how to make the current system better.
"The inherent flaw in the current NASCAR points system is that it doesn't reward drivers for consistency in winning," she said.
Assuming the current points system of one point per position, she proposes an increasing bonus rate for wins based on the Fibonacci sequence -- the next number is equal to the sum of the previous two -- one point for the first win, then two, three, five, eight, 11, etc.
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The details of racing fascinate Andrew Maness. The slightest turn of a wrench takes a car from junk to the winner's circle. The minutest jerk of the wheel takes a car in the lead and stuffs it into the wall. The smallest miscalculation about fuel makes the difference between coasting triumphantly across the finish line and sputtering sadly down the backstretch, a mile from glory.
Maness has a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in economics. In his professional life, he performs economic research on banking regulations and housing for the Federal Reserve Bank. He brings eye for detail to his blog at NASCARnomics.com and on Twitter @nascarnomics.
He built a following on Twitter by going inside NASCAR's numbers, studying attendance and ratings and night racing versus day racing, among other things. He has figured out ways to answer seemingly theoretical questions (would attendance be this bad if the economy were better?) with concrete numbers. He also has examined whether commonly held beliefs about NASCAR are true. For example, commentators often say, "cautions breed cautions," the rough equivalent of "a walk is as good as a hit." Maness proved it was true.
His points proposal will make NASCAR fans mad, even though they'll probably largely agree with him. That's because he thinks NASCAR should adopt the IndyCar points system, which to NASCAR fans is like saying your stepmom is better than your real mom. No matter how true it is, you hate it anyway.
Maness would dole out points like this:
Maness' rational is simple: If the goal is to identify a champion who combines wins and consistency and avoids bad finishes, the Indy system works. The Indy car winner has always had the most or second most wins in the series, while the NASCAR champ has won the most races only seven times in the last 18 seasons. The Indy system also highlights consistency -- the champ's average finish typically ranks third in the series, same as NASCAR.
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All of these plans work on different levels. But each needs tweaking, and by combining the good ideas from each, I created my own proposal.
My points for first through 25th would be the same as Good's. From Maness and Leslie-Pelecky, I would steal the idea of a uniform number of points for bad finishers. Drivers who placed 26th and worse would get 34 points -- a nod to Latford. This would have the added bonus of making racing safer, because cars that are dozens of laps down would leave the track because there would be no points to gain by continuing to race.
I propose a few new wrinkles. I'd give the winner a 100-point bonus -- but only if he or she also led the most laps. I'd borrow Fisher's idea and apply the Fibonacci sequence to subsequent bonuses. I'd call it the Fibonascar bonus.
A winner who led only the last lap would receive a 25-point bonus because last lap passes for the win are cool and should be rewarded if a driver didn't lead at any other time.
Every race is not equal, so every race should not pay the same number of points. The Daytona 500 is the biggest race in the world, and the winner should be rewarded for it beyond the trophy and the big, fat check. I would give the winner double points -- 2,000. The winners of the Brickyard, the night race at Bristol, the Coca Cola 600 and the Southern 500 would get 1,500. The bonuses would apply only to winners because finishing second at a big race is still the first loser.
I would eliminate the Chase because it's an attempt to shoehorn what works with other sports into NASCAR. NASCAR should stop acting like other sports because it's not like other sports.
NASCAR fans calls those other sports "stick-and-ball" sports. In stick-and-ball sports, fans become fans via geography -- because you grew up in Boston or Detroit, you are a fan of the Red Sox or Tigers. Outside of the Southeast, NASCAR doesn't have a geographical component, and becoming a NASCAR fan is more like becoming a fan of an underground band.
You buy one CD, like it, buy another, like it, and so on. You show up in a dank concert hall to watch them play. You meet other fans. You evangelize new fans. When new material comes out, you measure it against the old material. When the band hits it big, you brag you've been a fan for years … and watch for signs of selling out. If the band starts venturing into new musical territory, you wonder what was wrong with the old sound. At some point the band stops being the band you loved and becomes something else.
For many NASCAR fans, that has been happening since the Chase was implemented in 2004. They want their sport back, and that reunion must start with the points system.
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