NASCAR: Why the Points System Doesn't Punish Bad Finishes More Than the Old One

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NASCAR: Why the Points System Doesn't Punish Bad Finishes More Than the Old One
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

How many times have you heard—from NASCAR drivers, the media or the guy sitting next to you in the Talladega bleachers—that the new points system makes it tougher for drivers to make up ground in the points after suffering a bad finish?

Don’t believe it for a minute. The reasoning behind that assertion rests on a faulty assumption.

Today, I want to debunk that myth. Here is an explanation of how the current points system does not punish poor finishes more than the pre-2011 system.

The reasoning goes something like this: "Pre-2011, the fewest percentage of points a driver could earn in comparison to the winner stopped at 18 percent. This year? Any finish below 35th is below that mark. A 43rd-place finish earning just two percent of the winner's points."

All that is true. However, it completely misses a significant point.

Under the old system, every driver starting the race was guaranteed to score at least 34 points. These points were basically irrelevant (except to drivers struggling to stay in the top 35 in points—more on that later). Last place could have been scored at 64 (with a winner’s maximum of 225 rather than 195), or 100 (maximum 261), or zero (maximum of 161), and it wouldn’t have made one bit difference to the drivers fighting near the top of the standings—despite the ratio of last-place points to winner’s points being different in every scenario.

Ratios and percentages don’t matter; the actual number of points separating two drivers is all that counts.

Confused by that concept? Here’s an analogy to help out.

Imagine what would happen today if every week NASCAR gave a 100-point bonus to every driver who made the race.

How would that affect the drivers at the top of the standings, those who were well within the top 35 in points and had a guaranteed spot in every race?

Not at all.

Again, percentages and ratios don’t matter when making up ground in the points—what matters is the actual number of points separating the two drivers.

In this scenario, the difference in actual number of points would be identical—i.e., the race winner could score up to 148 points, while the 43rd-place driver would get 101. The difference would still be 47 points. Either way, the last-place driver loses 47 points to the race winner. He would have 47 points to make up in subsequent races.

However, some might look at that and say, “Hey, this system isn’t so bad for nice guys who finish last—they’re getting more than two-thirds as many points as the race winner!” True enough, but that’s not going to help them actually gain ground on those leading the standings.

Thus, despite the fact that under the current points system the 43rd-place finisher scores just two percent of the amount of points as the race winner, the new points system doesn’t punish low finishes any more than the old system did.

Counter-intuitive? Perhaps—but factual nonetheless. Think about it, run the numbers, and you’ll see that it’s true.

As I mentioned earlier, this only applies to drivers who aren’t fighting to make every race, battling for a spot in the top 35 of the standings.

The new system actually does affect those drivers near the top-35 cutoff. And interestingly enough, it makes it tougher for start-and-park drivers to secure positions in the top 35, guaranteeing them a starting position in every race.

How does the new system pull off this wondrous feat?

Imagine a start-and-parker who’s really good at qualifying. He qualifies for a race, turns a few laps and calls it a day (not leaving the premises until after collecting his check, of course). Throughout the season, let’s assume he manages to make every race on speed, but only averages a 41st-place finish—good for just three points per race, or 108 over the entire season.

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Meanwhile, another driver isn’t so great at qualifying and only makes half the races. However, he legitimately tries to get a good finish and manages to average a 35th-place result in the races he does make. That’s nine points per start, good for 162 points on the year.

Despite making only half the races, the second driver would be rewarded for his efforts by being higher in the standings than the start-and-parker who made all the races, but decided to leave the track after puttering around the back of the field for a few laps.

How would this scenario have played out under the old rules? Our start-and-parker would have scored 40 points per race, or 1440 on the season. Our second driver would score 58 points for each 35th-place finish; with 18 starts, that comes to just 1044 points over the whole year. And if he manages to get into the top 35 at some point, he can approach every race with an eye on performance in the race, not having to worry about qualifying on speed.

Therefore, the new point system can have a significant effect on the battle between start-and-parkers and legitimate drivers duking it out for a spot in the top 35, favoring drivers who try to run complete races and post the best finishes they can manage.

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