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Thursday, January 20, 2011
Updated: January 21, 6:07 PM ET
New points format won't sell tickets

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One can only hope that NASCAR has some special surprise planned for next week's media tour in Charlotte, N.C., beyond announcing it has simplified the points system.

The proposed points system NASCAR officials acknowledged on Friday at Daytona International Speedway raises the excitement meter like watching this test session in the rain. The new format likely would award 43 points for first and one point fewer for every ensuing position down to one point for last place. The top 10 in points would make the Chase, along with two others with the most wins who are not in the top 10 .

It promotes consistency over winning more than ever and opens the door for drivers and teams playing it safe more than ever. But it doesn't fix what ails the sport.

Sure, it might be simpler to understand, which NASCAR president Mike Helton says has been a goal for several years. But were fans and drivers really confused by the old system? Did it really need fixing, as we'll be told when chairman Brian France likely announces the new plan Wednesday?

OK, some drivers apparently were confused. Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin like that they won't need a calculator to figure out how many spots ahead of Jimmie Johnson they need to finish to win the title.

Of course, they have well-paid engineers who do that for them, so there's really no reason to be confused.

Mike Helton
NASCAR president Mike Helton says the league has wanted more simplified scoring for years.

Judging by fan complaints on e-mail and Twitter, a new points system was way down the wish list, way behind shorter races, a shorter schedule, more variety of tracks in the Chase, a car that looks more like the street model and keeping Sprint Cup drivers from dominating the Nationwide Series.

The latter officially has happened, with Helton saying on Friday that drivers must choose in which series they intend to compete for a championship.

I actually can't remember the last time somebody complained that the points system was too complicated. You all confirmed that in an informal survey on Twitter in which most of you agreed that was near the bottom of the priority list or not on your list at all.

NASCAR will tell you it was a primary concern, but, as Johnson reminded us, it won't put fannies in seats and improve television ratings.

"I don't think it's a huge strategy to engage the fans more from an attendance standpoint or a viewer standpoint," the five-time defending Cup champion said. "I mean, you always hope for that. In my opinion, there are other areas to focus on for that."

Jeff Burton agreed as we waited out the Friday morning rain delay behind his hauler.

"The points system is not the problem in our sport," he said. "Changing the points system is not going to put more fans in the stands."

But the new points system could create problems. It could mean a driver in 22nd place with two wins makes the Chase over a driver in 11th place with one win. Burton admits that would tick him off. I suspect it would irk a few others, too.

It could mean drivers becoming more content with taking a top-5 or even a top-10 position rather than gambling with a move that could be the difference between winning and finishing 43rd.

That's because the difference between winning and finishing last would go from about 20 percent to 2 percent. In other words, the winner under the current system outscores the last-place finisher 185-34, but, under the proposed format, the winner would outscore last place 43-1, bonus points for wins not included.

Huge.

"You're opening the door for races that aren't as exciting," Burton said.

You'll also, as Clint Bowyer noted when he interrupted my discussion with Burton, widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots because blown engines, wrecks and poor finishes that typically happen more to the have-nots put them in a deeper hole.

"You separate the field more," Bowyer said. "It'll make them look worse."

I'm not against simplifying. I just don't think this was a problem, and I don't think the solution addresses making wins more important, as France keeps suggesting.

Helton argues differently. He says that the model is adjustable to make wins more significant based on bonus points for wins, laps led, etc., and that the first goal simply was to make the system simpler. From what we hear, NASCAR is considering anywhere from one to three bonus points for a win.

Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton on why revamping the scoring system shouldn't be a high priority: "The points system is not the problem in our sport. Changing the points system is not going to put more fans in the stands."

"We can continue enhancing the attention to and the appetite to win with bonus points and how we apply those to a basic simple structure to start with," Helton said. "You can also do things with the events themselves, the field that goes into the Chase … to encourage and put a high appetite on winning races.

"The points models start off with a simple system, but we can accomplish the attention to winning with bonuses and other places."

Let's hope so.

But under most of those models -- and, according to NASCAR, the model most likely to be used -- Johnson still wins the title.

Kevin Harvick tried to put his thoughts on the matter into perspective by sharing a text message from New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi after last year's season in which he dominated the regular season and finished third despite the best average finish among the 12 playoff drivers.

"Hey, man, great year, good job," Girardi wrote. "I don't understand how you can have the best year and not win. I don't understand your points system."

Said Harvick, "Those are the people that need to understand that aren't here every week … the casual fan we need to recapture. However that points system works out, I want it to be easy to understand for those type of people."

He should have reminded Girardi that the baseball team with the best record in the regular season doesn't always win the title. Same as football and basketball.

The current system isn't broken, so why fix it? Why offer more change to fans that they don't necessarily want? NASCAR should have learned when it implemented the Chase and went to the COT all within a couple of years that fans don't necessarily like change.

Some drivers don't, either.

"I guess I'm reluctant to make changes," Burton said. "We're coming off a very exciting year. I really like the idea of keeping points the same but making it so a few more people got in the Chase and then making it where people are essentially eliminated."

That was the idea initially floated. Expand the Chase from 12 to 15 drivers, have a couple of eliminations and possibly reset the points to ensure there's a close battle going into the final three races as there was this season when Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick went into the final race with a shot to win.

Now we're less than a month before the opener and still a few days from officially knowing exactly what will happen. Helton insists that's not a negative, that getting feedback from all the teams is more important than NASCAR making a decision on its own.

If the NASCAR powers that be listened to team ideas I've heard in the garage here, they'd be more inclined to implement a points system that weighed heavier toward the top, as the current system does, and awarded no points for finishes worse than 25th or 35th.

That not only would create less confusion but also would save money for teams that feel the need to put a wrecked car back on the track to pick up a couple of positions.

Getting back on the track will be more of a premium under the proposed system because it's a far greater penalty for finishing further back.

Hopefully, NASCAR has something up its sleeve to surprise us, to address some of the real concerns fans have.

If not, this rain-marred test session will be the highlight of the preseason.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.