Originally created 01/15/04

NASCAR braces for changes



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jeff Gordon knows change is coming. So does everyone else. It doesn't mean anyone has to like it.

Like most drivers here at Daytona International Speedway testing for next month's Daytona 500, the three-time series champion wonders whether NASCAR has gone too far in changing the points system.

"I thought maybe they should give more points for winning a race, something like that," he said. "I never thought they'd do something this drastic."

Although details will be released next week, NASCAR plans to turn the 36-race regular season into a 26-race segment that determines the qualifiers for the national championship and a 10-race title run among the qualifiers. Those not qualified to participate in this so-called "playoff system" will still participate in the final 10 races.

"What bothers me is they're not changing it because of racing," Gordon said. "They're changing it because of entertainment."

Most feel racing is no longer a sport but more like reality television at 180 mph. NASCAR took something as simple as a race - the first one across the finish line wins - and turned it into something so radical that one driver jokingly suggested new NASCAR chairman Brian France had been eating beef laced with Mad Cow's Disease when he gave his stamp of approval.

Bill France Jr. said the reason for the change is to keep the sport from getting "stale." NBC bought the broadcast rights to the final 10 races, and now, it seems, will have a product as gimmicky as the XFL.

The beginning of the 10-race "playoff" just happens to start during the third week of the regular season in the National Football League. NBC is the only major network without broadcasting rights to professional football.

Of the 43 drivers who've tested during two different sessions at Daytona, only three expressed any support for the new point system.

Michael Waltrip said those opposed to the plan simply oppose change. Jimmy Spencer said it would pump new life into the sport. Ricky Craven said it would allow more drivers to compete for the title.

But even Spencer admitted the fix doesn't solve the real problem: the quality of racing. As long as stock cars are engineering marvels that rely more on computer programming than driving skill, racing will never be fixed. Spencer said follow-the-leader racing and events determined by pit road strategy and fuel mileage are greater threats to television ratings than the lack of an exciting points race.

Although every poll - at the racetrack and on the Internet - shows widespread disdain for the new points system, everyone suspects it will work. Everything NASCAR touches eventually turns to gold.

"I see NASCAR's side of it," Jeremy Mayfield said. "I think the way they're looking at it will make it very exciting. Go back and look at the people who have been in the top 10 after 26 races in the past. It's pretty much going to be kind of the same. Some people, it's going to hurt; some people it's going to help. It's going to be a heck of a show, and that's what it's all about."

Matt Kenseth's championship run included a series-record 33 races as the points leader. For all practical purposes the championship was over by mid-summer.

While Kenseth won the championship with a string of 31 top-15 finishes in 36 races - a run that included no pole positions and just one victory - Ryan Newman was finishing sixth in the points with 11 poles and eight wins.

"Our did-not-finishes cost us the championship," Newman said. "We finished on our roof three times, and we were on fire another time. Matt Kenseth won the championship because he had a great season. I didn't think there was anything wrong with the point system."

Tony Stewart liked the old points system, but said the new one won't change the way he races. He will drive as hard as he can and let the pencil-pushers figure it out.

"It is what it is," Stewart said. "It's been this way for however many years. We (drivers) didn't have a say in it, one way or another. So we don't worry about it."

Neither will NASCAR - as long as the television ratings continue to rise.