In the next two weeks, NASCAR officials are expected to announce changes that will affect both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. Will the Cup points system undergo a complete overhaul? Will Cup drivers not be allowed to earn points in the Nationwide Series? Will the Chase For The Sprint Cup go through yet another format change? We’ll know the answers soon.
In the meantime, here’s a look at seven changes we would like to see in 2011:
1. More points for winning a race.
Let’s face it. Pulling off a win in NASCAR’s top series isn’t easy. It takes a tremendous amount of preparation, skill, teamwork, stamina and even a bit of luck. And yet, those drivers that do manage to accomplish such exceptional feats are rewarded with a ridiculously minuscule 15-point advantage (excluding any bonus points for leading laps).
While it would be equally illogical to reward the race winner with an excessive amount of points – after all, consistency should still be a component – a difference of 15 points is hardly noteworthy given what winning teams achieve on a given weekend. Drivers finishing second and fourth are separated by no more than that amount.
Winning needs to carry more weight. After all, it is the objective.
Given that the points for those that qualify for the Chase are reset heading into the final 10 races (a subject we’ll touch on later), any huge advantage a driver might have through the first 26 races is going to be wiped out anyway. And while a driver that gets hot in the Chase might pile up an insurmountable points lead if he was able to win several races, again, isn’t winning races what it’s all about?
2. No bonus points for leading under caution.
There’s nothing wrong with awarding five bonus points for leading a lap under green-flag conditions. Any time a driver is able to race his way to the front or pull away from those behind him and lead a lap is an accomplishment. It encourages competition on the track, which is never a bad thing.
However, there’s absolutely no reason to award points for leading a lap when the caution flag is displayed. It’s an easy five points awarded for basically doing nothing.
Bonus points should be awarded for extraordinary accomplishments, not for simply staying on the track when the field is under the yellow flag.
3. Reward the points leader after 26 races.
Kevin Harvick managed to build a 228-point lead through the first 26 races in 2010. But when the field was reset heading into the Chase, based on bonus points for wins, everything Harvick had accomplished up to that point meant practically nothing. Granted, it earned him one of the 12 Chase berths, but with three wins, his new point total was no different that that of Kyle Busch, who trailed Harvick by 228 points before the reset.
Harvick’s situation wasn’t unique. Since 2007, when NASCAR restructured the Chase to set the field based on wins through the first 26 races, Harvick, Tony Stewart (2009) and Jeff Gordon (’07) went from leading the points to finding themselves trailing.
That wasn’t the case from 2004 through ’06, when the Chase field was seeded based only on the points standings after the 26th race, with the field separated by five-point increments. So leading the points did have meaning.
Rewarding those who have won races leading up to the Chase works. It lends weight to victories. But not rewarding a team for leading the standings after 26 races in some fashion trivializes what that team has accomplished.
4. Stop rewarding winning teams when their cars fail post-race inspection.
NASCAR can levy all the penalties it wants, but allowing a driver to be credited with a win when his car fails post-race inspection sends the wrong message to fans and competitors. And that message is that a team can break the rules and still come out on top.
It also unfairly penalizes the other drivers in the race whose cars do pass inspection.
Monetary fines and points penalties are all well and good, but in the end, a driver that is allowed to keep a victory with an illegal car is still being rewarded.
And that’s simply wrong.
5. Award points for qualifying.
At the risk of muddying the points waters even further, if qualifying means something, and it must because we see it as often as 36 times a year, then why not reward those teams who excel by awarding points for where they qualify?
It doesn’t have to be much, but multiply any amount by 36 and it can have an impact. Reward the pole winner with something as small as a five-point bonus, with four points for second through 10th, three for 11th through 20th and two for 21st through 43rd. Then give anyone making an attempt but failing to qualify one point.
It would bring back a bit of excitement to pole day and would reward those teams that stand out. Teams often put as much effort into qualifying as they do the actual race, and it’s time they were rewarded for it.
At the same time, with only a minor points difference throughout the field, a driver who encounters a problem during a qualifying attempt would not be unfairly penalized.
6. Stop sending teams home without the opportunity to qualify.
Every team that spends the money and puts in the effort to attend a Cup race deserves the chance to qualify for the event.
And it’s wrong to send teams home because of weather-related issues. The top 35 teams are already guaranteed starting spots, so if rain puts a damper on the scheduled qualifying session, it doesn’t impact their status.
But for those outside the top 35, a wet track can be devastating.
NASCAR may not control the weather, but it does control the race schedule. Slotting an additional hour of track time to allow 8-10 teams the opportunity to qualify shouldn’t require moving mountains, only a bit more effort.
No, it won’t always work. Three qualifying sessions in 2010 were cancelled due to weather, and two of those – at Talladega and Daytona – were scheduled the day before the race. But when the opportunity exists, as it did at Martinsville last year, then NASCAR should make the most of it.
7. An increased focus on track safety.
NASCAR has done an outstanding job at making the cars safer and tracks have stepped up to the plate to make their venues less dangerous.
Unfortunately, competitors are still discovering areas at some tracks where safety is compromised.
No track will ever be entirely safe, not with 43 cars zooming around at speeds anywhere from 120 mph to 200 mph. But it’s inconceivable that drivers are at risk of injury or worse because of areas that haven’t been updated with SAFER barriers or some other alternative.
The good news is that when such areas have been discovered, the tracks have worked to correct the problem.
The bad news is that it has taken far too many hard crashes to bring those problems to light.