The results of a change in the points system seem to favor certain drivers over others, leading to history repeating itself. This can be supported by the results of the last two significant points system changes within NASCAR’s premier series in 1975 and 2004.
We have all heard the story of the NASCAR pioneers who created the “classic” points system on the back of a paper bag, adding needed structure to what was to become a powerhouse sport. This change was implemented in 1975, a year which is sometimes referred to as the start of the Modern Era of NASCAR.
A fiery driver named Cale Yarborough had been associated with NASCAR for a few years prior to the points change, but figured out quickly that he was capable of points racing. The first year under the new points system, Cale landed ninth in the standings behind eventual champion Richard Petty.
Cale was one of four drivers to finish within the top 10 in points that year who didn’t start all 30 races that made up the season. The following year, Cale managed to start all 30 races on the schedule, and walked away with his first Cup Championship. He followed up with two more Championships in the following two years.
Cale remains the only driver to ever achieve three Cup Championships in consecutive years. However, those three were the only three he ever won. Over a 16 year career in NASCAR, Cale Yarbrough started 303 races, garnering three Cups, 55 wins, and 159 top fives.
Within five years of introducing a new points system in 1975, one driver managed to win three championships in a row.
After nearly three decades of success in racing, NASCAR chose in 2004 to introduce yet another new points system.
Like Yarborough, Jimmie Johnson raced in NASCAR for a few years preceding the most recent points change, and following its introduction, he found similar success.
2004 was the first year of the new points system, affectionately referred to as “The Chase,” Jimmie Johnson missed winning his first Championship by just eight points, finishing second behind Kurt Busch. 2005 also eluded Jimmie, as he finished fifth behind eventual Champion Tony Stewart.
When 2006 rolled around, Johnson was not to be denied again, as he managed to win his first Championship. 2007 provided the same result, as Johnson won his second championship in as many years. Now in 2008, with nine races left in the season, Johnson sits in the lead of the points, tied with Carl Edwards.
Jimmie Johnson is looking to be the first driver since Cale Yarborough to win three consecutive Cup Championships. Over his short career, Johnson has started only 246 races, with two Cups, 37 wins, and 96 top fives.
Now again, within five years of introducing a new points system, one driver is attempting to win three championships in a row.
What we know is that these drivers are managing to do things that others before them have been unable to do. Jimmie Johnson turned what the NASCAR world thought were Jeff Gordon-equipment-driven results into being a perennial challenger to Gordon, even taking at least one Cup from the grasp of Gordon as a result of the new points system.
In 1976, when Yarborough started his three in a row tear, Richard Petty sat in what we known now as late in his prime. Petty won Championships in 1971, 1972, 1974, and 1975. Had Yarborough not been present to slow down the Cup accumulation of Richard Petty, he might have won as many as 10 Championships.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would have had a much harder time achieving 10 Championships to tie the King's record, than he had with seven.
On the other side of the coin, we have Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Dale managed to win seven Championships over his career. In the late prime of his career, we were introduced to Jeff Gordon, who managed to come out strong to win four Championships.
Had it not been for Jeff Gordon coming along and slowing the accumulation of cups by Dale Sr., he might have accumulated more than the King, and more than anyone else would have ever matched.
Now in what might one day reveal itself as Jeff Gordon’s late prime, we get another points change, and the emergence of Jimmie Johnson. We know that Gordon has missed two additional Championships since the introduction of the Chase format, and I think we can all agree Jeff won’t keep racing long enough to match the seven Cup threshold set by the King and Earnhardt, Sr.
Perhaps the reason these drivers find success in the infancy of these points systems and early in their career is their advanced understanding of a points system. Perhaps their owners understand or have understood when to bring out the best equipment to ensure top results when they are most needed. Perhaps they are just lucky.
Maybe NASCAR has a hand in it all, guiding the sport and only allowing those to win who they see fit at any given time.
Who will emerge as Jimmie Johnson’s road block to breaking all the old records?
I would bet his name is Kyle Busch.
Regardless, we all have to give props to Jimmie Johnson. He is certainly not my favorite driver, but I do appreciate his efforts to protect the stats of our original NASCAR heroes, even if it comes at the expense of his teammate and team owner.
I look forward to seeing Jimmie’s impact on the sport for years to come. Then I hope to be around to see a new driver showing up to prevent Jimmie from breaking all the records. I also look forward to talking about it on here with all of you.
To get back to my old habits and bring back Kyle’s luck, I suggest this weekend you…
Sit back with a cold NOS and a cool bag of M&M’s or Snickers Bar, run your TV off of an Interstate Battery, and cheer on Kyle Busch as he crosses the finish line first, sweeping the races at Dover for 2008!!