Playoffs Or Payoffs?

On Monday night’s Inside Winston Cup program “guest expert” Jimmy Spencer may have dropped a bit of a bombshell. According to Mr. Excitement he had a discussion with Brian France at Homestead concerning a potential new championship scenario for 2004. Spencer says France told him that after the second Richmond race next year only drivers who are in the top 10 in points would be eligible for the champion’s title. After Richmond there will be ten races left on the schedule. Those top ten drivers would enter a sort of playoff in which the driver who scored the most points in those final ten races would be crowned champion, regardless of how many points they scored in the prior 26 points races.

Could NASCAR seriously be considering such an idea or was Spencer having a little fun and blowing off steam after a long season? No one can be certain and likely that’s the way NASCAR wants it right now. The Daytona Beach organization is famous for floating trial balloons considering such proposals. If the drivers, team owners and fans embrace the idea, they look brilliant. If the idea is loudly panned, they can go on record as saying that Spencer was mistaken and no such idea was ever under consideration. Spencer would take a little heat from some elements of the media. In exchange for being their fall guy, NASCAR would likely cut Spencer a little slack the next time he accidentally gets onto pit road a little too fast or “accidentally” nerfs Kurt Busch into the cheap seats.

In general most of the long time fans I’ve discussed this issue with don’t care for the idea. They point out that in two of the three top touring divisions of NASCAR the current points system provided an exciting points race that went right down to the final laps of the final race of the season this year.

Others, myself included, note a potential problem with the new method of determining a champion. With all the multi-car teams currently in the sport, let’s say one team owner has one team in contention for the title, and the other three not part of the anointed ten. Would Nextel Cup racing become like Formula One where the teammates tried to help their fellow driver win the title by harassing, blocking or even wrecking other championship contenders? Might they not be tempted to run illegal cars to influence the outcome of races the points chase since they’ll only get a monetary fine or at worst a points fine which is not critical since the offending driver is no longer a contender for the title?

Who would like the new championship idea? My guess is it would appeal to a lot of newer fans who have never quite figured out the arcane way NASCAR awards points and bonus points. Those casual fans don’t have the emotional investment long time fans have in the sport and aren’t as resistant to radical change as a result. And over the course of the last couple years NASCAR has shown they are willing to leave long time fans interests on the sideline as they reach out to newer, more affluent, hipper fans outside the traditional Southeast marketplace where the sport has flourished. Mark my words, the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy will give the command to start the engines at an NBC broadcast race sometime next year. Hopefully not at Darlington or Talladega or things could get ugly.

But the primary beneficiary and the probably the driving force behind the new championship idea would be NBC/TNT. NBC has to deal with circumstances a lot more difficult than FOX has to in the first part of the season. Not only does NBC have to broadcast races while a majority of viewers are more interested in the World Series, but they also have to go up against the ratings juggernaut of the NFL. And coincidentally (not) the new ten race NASCAR “playoffs” would start the same weekend as the NFL regular season.

NASCAR is the only one of the big four sports that doesn’t have some sort of “playoff.” In fact the race that is termed “The Super Bowl of NASCAR”, the Daytona 500, starts off the season which seems back-ass-wards. For the other big three sports the playoffs at the end of the season tend to generate high ratings as even casual fans who don’t follow the sport all season tune in to see the best teams compete against each other in elimination rounds. And there’s nothing particularly fair about the way those stick and ball championships are decided. An NFL team could go undefeated all season and face a Wild Card team that barely broke .500 during the regular season in the Super Bowl. What’s more, they could lose the championship for having one off day despite 19 consecutive wins. And that’s pretty much the same way the NASCAR “playoffs” would be run.

NBC has had some disappointing ratings this season particularly once the NFL season kicked off so likely they are the driving force behind this potential move. For whatever reason during their brief career as a NASCAR broadcast partner, NBC has chosen to focus on the “Drive to the Title” rather than showing each race as an individual event important in and of itself. This year FOX handed off the coverage with the title all but wrapped up and doubtless that hurt ratings among casual fans.

Other beneficiaries would include the ten tracks that host the final ten races of the season. In terms of a championship those ten races would be more important than the 26 races that preceded them. That would help sell some tickets. And it would be increasingly unlikely that the championship would be locked up prior to the last race. Those last ten races as they are currently scheduled offer a interesting mix of events including one plate track, one short track, the flat mile at New Hampshire, the high banked mile at Dover, the hard to categorize new Homestead facility, storied old Darlington (the circuits toughest track) and Atlanta and Charlotte, two of the sports biggest markets. The ISC owns five of those tracks (naturally) and the France family controls half of Martinsville. Speedway Motorsports owns two tracks that hold events in the final ten races, and Dover and New Hampshire are independent, at least for now. Bottom line the ISC is the big winner in such a move and if it benefits the ISC, NASCAR brass is likely to rubber stamp the idea.

So what would this year’s championship results look like if only the top 10 drivers in the points leaving the second Richmond race were in contention for the title and only their last ten races counted towards their points total. Here’s the average finish of those top ten drivers in the final ten races:

J. Johnson 6.5
J Gordon 7.4
R Newman 9.6
K Harvick 11.8
DEJ 11.9
M Kenseth 16.0
B. Labonte 17.3
T. Labonte 19.0
K. Busch 26.4
M. Waltrip 26.9

A quick check of the actual points awarded for those top three drivers (including lap leader bonuses and most laps led bonuses) gives the following result:

J. Johnson- 1529
J. Gordon- 1514
R. Newman- 1456

So Newman would have arrived at Homestead with a chance at the title and after he was wrecked out early, there would have been a tight points battle between Johnson and Gordon in the final race of the year.

As with all statistics, the above can be misleading. For one thing drivers drove those final ten races based on the rules as they are today. Kenseth naturally would have turned things up a notch and likely have finished better had he been playing under the proposed new rules, while under the current system Johnson and Gordon had nothing to lose by going wide open every race in a Quixotic chase of an unlikely title down the stretch. It also assumes that the points system for those final ten races would be the same as this year’s system, a very big if. Plus the figures above are “Matt Math” which is always suspect.

Personally I don’t like the proposed system. But I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance it will be implemented unless the drivers, team owners and fans throw the Mother of All Hissy Fits in the near future. Even at that those complaints might be outweighed by NBC who is paying NASCAR the big bucks to broadcast the last part of the season and whose contract renewal will start being discussed in the near future. It’s an interesting idea and I can see certain benefits to the proposal, but I think there’s less radical ways to give the points system a tune-up without tarnishing the worth of the other 26 races. If the idea is adopted I’d like to see one major change. Take the top nine drivers after Richmond and the driver with the most wins who is not included in that top nine. That way a driver like Dale Jarrett or Ricky Craven, hopelessly out of the top 10 late in the season but already having won a race, would have a chance to run wide open in late summer trying to win another race and get into the “playoffs” on the equivalent of a Wild Card entry by having more victories than the tenth place driver.

Brian France has already hinted big changes are in store for the new era of NASCAR racing and this might be the first indication big changes are afoot for 2004. NASCAR has a habit of making big announcements at the New York banquet, so keep your ears open that week whether you approve of the NBC payoff “Playoffs” or not.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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