Petty: Old points systems or new, racing is racing

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- The NASCAR season consisted of 62 races when Richard Petty won his first championship in 1964 and only 31 when he won his seventh and final title in 1978.

Five of the titles captured by the man known simply as "King" came under different points systems, being determined by everything from money won to number of laps led.

He considers none more or less significant than the others.

Jeff Gordon, who is 30 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in his quest for a fifth title, understands. He won't be upset if he loses the title by fewer than 20 points, which wouldn't have happened last season before NASCAR changed the system to award more points for wins.

But he's not so sure it's in NASCAR's best interest to keep tweaking the format.

"The one issue that I've got is that there's no way you can write history and compare history if it constantly changes, and there's no way that you can compare a champion back before the Chase to once the Chase started, and there's no way you can compare a driver in the Chase if they're changing constantly," Gordon said heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway.

"I think it's very hard to really create new history for the sport when they change it like that."

NASCAR officials considered that when they went to the Chase format in 2004, the first time the points system had been altered since 1975. They considered it again this past offseason when they tweaked the playoff format to expand the field from 10 to 12 teams and set the order based on 10 bonus points for wins.

"The truth is, it's had lots of changes over the years," NASCAR chairman Brian France said of the points system, which underwent several changes from 1972 to '75. "They used to have 50 or 60 races. It would be tough to compare apples to apples anyway."

Petty agreed.

"Because all the rules they changed on the cars, they changed on the tracks," he said. "You don't compare apples and oranges. So when you look at it, going into the beginning of the season, whatever it is, that's just the way it is.

"Somebody might want to go back and compare what David Pearson [did] with what Jeff Gordon's doing today. It's immaterial. You're running under these rules at these times. This is the way it is."

NASCAR is no different from any other sport in that regard. Comparing Jack Nicklaus' records to Tiger Woods' is tough because the equipment is far superior now and the courses they play have undergone so many changes.

Augusta National alone has undergone half a dozen face-lifts and is 300 yards longer since Nicklaus won his last green jacket in 1986.

Comparing the 1966 Green Bay Packers that won Super Bowl I with the Indianapolis Colts that won Super Bowl XLI last season is tough because so many things -- the tweaking of rules, the lengthening of the season, the advent of instant replay -- have changed the game.

There are similar examples in every sport, from the NBA and NHL to college football and basketball.

That's why Gordon doesn't think it's unfair that he trails Johnson by 30 points under this system when he would be 15 ahead -- assuming everybody raced each other the same way -- were it not for the change in bonus points.

He doesn't think it's unfair that under the pre-Chase system he would have wrapped up the title last week at Texas with more than a 400-point lead.

"I don't think anything is unfair when you know going into it what it is," Gordon said. "It's not unfair if you know that they pay bonus points to win races in the regular season and that those guys earn those points. We know what we've got to do.

"We've been ahead of them by enough points to be able to get it done, and I think we're still capable of getting it done. I don't really think of it that way at all. The points are whatever NASCAR decides to make it, and we're going to race the championship however they do it."

The good news to some is that the title will come down to the two drivers who have dominated all season, that this won't be like other sports, in which a team that sneaks into the playoffs as a wild card wins it all.

Others say it is boring because five or more drivers aren't in the running, because the title will come down to teammates who like each other instead of rivals from other teams.

"It's not good for the sport, no," Petty said. "It's too cut and dry. You have competition between two teams on the same team. That don't get it done as far as the general public. It's hard for you to write about it. If y'all can't get excited writing stuff, it's tough for the fans to get excited.

"If one of these drivers happened to be Earnhardt, it might have been a little bit different. But when [you] get Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, they're the same. They've just got a different name."

In an ideal world, NASCAR would prefer this to come down to two or more organizations. They put a cap on the number of teams under one roof at four hoping to create more opportunities for the so-called "little guys" to compete.

"Our preference is to see as many non-team members compete, but that's the nature of some of the teams that have multiple talented good drivers," France said. "All things being equal, we'd like to see 12 different drivers from 12 different teams, sure.

"That's not how it always works."

But France does believe the system is working. He was so excited to see Johnson battle Matt Kenseth hard for the win last week at Texas that he called Johnson after the race.

"He knew those bonus points may be necessary to win it all," France said. "In the old days, somebody might have settled for second. He took a lot of chances. I hope it was because the rewards were such that it counts. That's what I'm hearing."

Jeff Burton isn't complaining. Although he'd like to be a factor, he likes that the season has come down to the two best drivers.

"As much as I am a competitor of those two, I don't want to admit that, but the reality is those two teams have been better than the rest of us," he said. "I think nothing can be better for the sport than having the best in the final round, seeing who's still standing when the thing is over.

"It could be more compelling if they weren't on the same team, so to speak, but it is in the best interest of our sport to have the best teams battling it out."

Again, Petty doesn't think so. He believes fans have lost interest because they don't have a driver to pull for against the Hendrick Empire. He believes it would be far more compelling if Clint Bowyer, a distant third, were close enough to spoil the party.

"The fans, even if they wasn't a Clint Bowyer fan, would probably pull for him to beat the Hendrick's deal," Petty said. "Now, you have nobody to beat the Hendrick's deal, so everybody is down on them."

But regardless who wins, the championship will have just as much significance as the ones Petty captured many years ago under different systems.

"See, the big deal is, when you start the beginning of the season, you know how they're going to add them up," Petty said of the points. "So then it's up to you or your team to figure out the best advantage if you're going to go for the points."

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