If it looks like a playoff and sounds like a playoff ...

February 08, 2004|by MARK KELLER

NASCAR never ceases to amaze when it comes to changing its rulebook.

Only in NASCAR can a rule read one way this week and be completely rewritten next week - and all in the middle of a season.

The stock car king did make its two biggest modifications in the off-season this year: Changing its primary sponsor from Winston to Nextel and revamping its points system to make the final weeks of the season a little more relevant to the championship race.

Aside from having to get used to calling the top NASCAR series the Nextel Cup, fans won't be able to tell a huge difference in the sponsorship.


But the so-called "Chase for the Championship?" The jury is still out on whether this is good or bad for the series.

The new system essentially calls for the first 26 races of the year to act as a regular season with teams racing under nearly the same points system as before. The only change: Race winners will be awarded 180 points, up from 175 a year ago.

The final 10 races of the year will make up the playoffs. Only the top 10 drivers and those within 400 points of the leader at that point will be eligible for the championship.

All points earned in the first 26 races are thrown out. The points leader is given 5,050 points, second gets 5,045, third gets 5,040 and on down the line.

The plan is to make the championship battle more exciting than last year, when Matt Kenseth ran away with the title despite winning only one race.

The problem with the new system is that it takes away the rewards for consistency on which NASCAR titles have always been built.

"Consistency wins championships." Drivers have said that more than they've thanked their sponsors in the past.

It might not be the case any longer. Going into the last 10 races of 2003, Kenseth held a 418-point lead over the second-place driver. This season, that lead will be cut to five points by the start of the 27th race.

The change will make the final 10 races of the season like a playoff, and fans of other sports know that the team with the most wins doesn't always take home the championship (see New York Yankees).

But I think the change was a little too drastic. How about this theory?

  • Still take the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points (Remember, NO driver was within 400 points last year) and make them eligible for the championship.

  • Still give the points leader 5,050 points to start the "Chase for the Championship."

  • Give the last eligible driver 4,870 points - 180 points (or the value of one win) less than the first-place driver.

  • Evenly separate the remaining drivers in between.

The difference in this plan and the actual NASCAR system isn't much, but it does at least give the first-place driver a bit more of an advantage heading into the final 10 races.

NASCAR has stopped short of calling the new system a "playoff system," but don't kid yourself - that's exactly what it is.

If they would simply call it a playoff, the new system would make perfect sense. Right now, it doesn't.

Mark Keller is sports editor of The Herald-Mail. His column appears every Sunday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2332, or by e-mail at

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