A FEW YEARS AGO,before NASCAR instituted the Chase for the Nextel Cup, driver John Andretti wastalking about possible changes to the points system used to determine theseries champ. "Maybe they should just give it to the guy who wins the mostraces," he said jokingly. But Andretti had a point. Since its inception,NASCAR has rewarded consistency. Drivers and fans blanch at the term, butpoints racing--racking up good finishes but, above all, not doing anything thatcould lead to trouble--is what wins titles. Reconciling the need for restraintwith the need for speed has never been easy, which is why NASCAR's decision totweak its points system is a wise one.
Starting thisseason, a win is worth an extra five points. More significant, when the Chasebegins, the drivers will be seeded by number of victories rather than totalpoints. Kasey Kahne began the 2006 Chase in 10th place; under the new system,because he'd had more wins in the first 26 races (five) than anyone else, hewould have started it in first. Just how much of a disconnect has there beenbetween winning a race and winning a title? In the last eight years only oncehas the driver who has taken the most checkered flags also won the Cup (JeffGordon in 2001). Over that same span the season's winningest driver hasfinished, on average, fifth in the standings. "Consistency is going to be abig part of winning the championship, but also winning races is going to be alittle bigger too," says Kahne. "I think it's a neat rule."
Not so neat,though, is NASCAR's other tweak: expanding the Chase field to 12. For all ofthe drama racing gives fans, one thing it doesn't provide enough of is thoseheartbreaking moments when a big-time competitor has his season ended. (See:Stewart, Tony, 2006. The '05 Cup champ stood 11th in points after the 26-race"regular season" and missed out on the Chase.) Half the fun of a10-team Chase was seeing which of the top contenders didn't get in.
On the otherhand, expanding the field should mean harder racing year-round--especiallybecause NASCAR's other rules changes should go a long way toward eliminatingthe incentive for drivers to play it safe if they're near the top of thestandings. "For so many years you got to a point where you just had toprotect that lead and you had to really quit racing about July," says ownerRobert Yates, for whom Dale Jarrett won the 1999 title. "Now you can reallyreturn to full-blown racing."
NEAR MISS Shut out in '06, Stewart would have made the Chase under the new rules.