DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Bob Latford is the inventor and generally a fervent defender of a NASCAR points system that last year awarded the season title to a driver (Terry Labonte) who had eight fewer wins than the runnerup (Jeff Gordon).
The point system emphasizes consistency rather than winning, which virtually assures sustained fan interest into the fall, when racing competes for spectators, TV viewers and newspaper coverage against the likes of the World Series, NFL and college football.
But even Latford concedes that the 23-year-old system should be tweaked to assure that a driver who has a truly superior season isn't shortchanged.
That happened last year when Gordon won 10 races to Labonte's two. Gordon also led nearly twice as many miles as any driver, won the most purse money and matched Labonte in top-five finishes (21) and top-10s (24).
That Gordon didn't win a second Winston Cup championship was an injustice, and one that could be repeated this year.
The 25-year-old star has seven victories in 15 races, plus two more in the non-points Busch Clash and Winston All-Star events for a total of nine wins - more than all other drivers combined. Yet, he leads Mark Martin by only 92 points going into Saturday's midseason Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Such a slim advantage could be erased by a broken water hose or even a bad pit stop.
Latford, who has been around NASCAR in various capacities for 52 years, proposes making a win worth 10 additional points and a pole position worth five. Currently, a victory is worth 175 points, or only five more points than second place. If the second-place driver secures the five-point bonus for leading the most laps, first and second place pay the same points (185). No points are awarded now to pole position winners.
"Circumstances in the sport have changed," said Latford, who was public relations director at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he created the point system in the fall of 1974. "When this system was put in place, there were only five teams capable of winning. You had to give maximum weight to consistency so that some of the other guys had a chance to be around at the end of the year. Now, at least theoretically, half of the teams in the garage are capable of winning."
Latford still echoes the sentiments of NASCAR officials, who contend a champion should be the circuit's most consistent performer.
To those who assert that the points system should be heavily slanted toward winning, Latford offers this analogy: "Say we played golf, and you made hole-in-ones on the four par-3s. If I par all of the of the other holes, and you bogey everything else, I'm still going to win."
Giving 10 more points to the race winner and five to pole winners is a sensible idea and one that NASCAR should implement for 1998. Were such a format in place this year, Gordon would own a 137-point lead over Martin - hardly insurmountable, but one more reflective of his dominance.
Gordon would have won last year's championship by 48 points. Bill Elliott, who won 11 races in 1985 but finished second to Darrell Waltrip for the title, would have won that championship. Elliott, a five-race winner in 1992, would have beaten two-race winner Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
Gordon could be screaming for a change, but he isn't. He has much more respect for the history of the sport than fans give him credit for, and he appears to enjoy the challenge of having to finish up front every week.
"I think it means a great deal the way it's structured because of who has won it and how difficult it is to win it," Gordon said.
Labonte points out that in other sports, the team that wins the most games doesn't always win the championship. True, but a team that wins five times more games usually doesn't finish second. Nor should a race driver.