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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

There's no point in changing the system

BROOKLYN, Mich. - NASCAR is tweaking its tradition, turning the contemporary corner and trying to drive home still another fresh point.

Its current points system, drawn up on the back of a napkin at the Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach by the late Bob Latford in 1975, has passed the test of time.

But now, all of a sudden, the points system isn't up to speed. It's being challenged by a perceived test of tedium.

NASCAR has, all of a sudden, discovered the 21st century. It's now on the leading edge of safety technology, following the death of its icon, Dale Earnhardt, in 2001. It is relocating and even dismantling some of its traditional smaller markets as it speeds to more populated environs to oblige its billion-dollar TV pals.

But there are some points to ponder while others ponder what to do about the points.

NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. recently admitted the hood is up on current points system. He's looking for things that “would spice up our show and make it better.”

It's being suggested that Matt Kenseth could all but wrap up the NASCAR Winston Cup championship today with a top finish in the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway starting at 2 p.m.

Kenseth leads the Cup points standings. He's 258 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 396 in front of third-place Jeff Gordon.

Sure, the Winston Cup points race isn't a bumper-to-bumper battle that's as wide open as the California gubernatorial race.

So what?

It's like Dale Jarrett said Friday, “Now that the sport has taken on this national attention, everybody's become an expert on what's going to make it better. It's worked great for a long time. We don't need to change it.”

It's not a system failure. The point system rewards consistency over victories. Winning isn't the only thing, with apologies to Vince Lombardi. Win one week, crash the next and you don't score points with the system. Finish in the top 10 almost every week and you're Matt Kenseth.

He's won only once, but has finished in the top 10 an amazing 17 times in the 22 races to date. He's also got nine top-five finishes. Ryan Newman leads the Winston Cup circuit with four victories but is ninth in the points because of failing to finish five races.

“BOR-ING!” say those who contend that the current points system encourages “points racing” or conservatism. They also argue that it's silly and dangerous to allow vehicles caught up in wrecks to be repaired and returned to the field even though they have to maintain a minimum speed.

But as France once said in regard to a large field, “You've got to have someone to pass.”

Kenseth feels he can't do anything right. He's accused of being a somewhat synthetic points leader. Last year, he won a Winston Cup-leading five races and finished eighth in the points. If he had three victories this season, we wouldn't be paying any attention to the points race.

“I still want to win five times, but on our bad days, we want to not be as bad, and that's something we've worked on,” Kenseth said.

His bad days this season can be counted on two fingers: Martinsville, where he finished 22nd, and the Daytona 500 last February when he was 20th. It's not his fault that when his Roush Racing team car is a little off, so are those in hot pursuit for the championship.

The winner of each Winston Cup race gets 175 points. Second through sixth is each divided by five-point increments. Seventh through 11 is divided by four-point increments. Twelfth and lower get three points less than the place before them. All 43 places are awarded points.

Drivers who lead a lap earn five bonus points. The driver who leads the most laps in a single race earns five additional bonus points.

The NASCAR Busch Series and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series both use the same points system the Winston Cup Series deploys.

A total of only 21 points divide the top three drivers in the Craftsman Truck Series. In the Busch Series, 96 points separate the top three drivers.

The top three in the Winston Cup points standings all have one win each. Among the top seven in the points only Jimmie Johnson, in fourth, has two wins.

So much for victories.

The maximum point spread between first and last is 151. There's 14 races remaining. If, for instance, Kenseth's good fortune turns south and he finishes last today, and Earnhardt Jr. wins, the overall point spread would be only 107. Wow? What a great points race.

It's pointless to change the system. Latford's napkin remains unsoiled.



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