Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Points system leading to early aggressiveness?

At Daytona, we saw the "big one" a couple of times. This was no surprise to anyone who has watched the racing at Daytona in recent years. The type of racing that is the norm at the restrictor plate tracks leads to the possibility of multiple car wrecks, with cars running two and three wide in one or more packs.

If there was a track where most observers would say a huge, third-of-the-field wreck would not be expected, that track would be Phoenix International Raceway.

Nevertheless, that is exactly what we saw, and we saw it on lap 67 of a 312 lap race. Why are drivers being so aggressive so early in a race? It's easy enough to just dismiss this as hard racing, which is what top level drivers do. The question is, what, if anything, has changed to bring the level of aggressiveness even higher, and so early in races?

Could it be the points system? NASCAR implemented its new point system at the beginning of the year. The new system was meant to improve a number of perceived problems with the old points system. The new system is simpler, mathematically, since generally each position on the track counts for one point. It was also intended to reward winning more, which it does, marginally.

There is one other thing it does that has not been discussed much in the racing media: it punishes poor finishes, and it does so more than the old system did. Under the old system, the maximum points one could earn in a race was 195; the minimum was 34. That means that the worst one could do, by finishing 43rd, is to earn 17.4% of the points of the race winner.

Under the new system, the last-place finisher gets one point. The maximum that can be earned is 48 points. That means the driver that comes in 43rd can find himself receiving 2% of the points the winner gets.

This may be causing teams to be that much more afraid of a back-of-the-pack finish, and could be leading to strategies to avoid that, like trying to get up front as soon as possible.

The positive side of this is it would tend to discourage single-line racing throughout the field, because at most tracks, it takes some time to advance positions, so you should end up with a more exciting race. Obviously, the negative side is the possibility of a lot of wrecked race cars. It also means teams will have even more incentive get damaged cars back on track as soon as they can to salvage points, which could lead to even more wrecks. Case in point: we saw Andy Lally get into the wall Sunday in his noseless race car, bringing out a caution.

Now, this is just a theory, and it's very early in the season.

If we see a "big one" at Las Vegas early in the race, though, just keep this theory in mind as a possible explanation.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Some drivers who finished better than media thought they would

The Daytona 500 was a different race than it has been in recent years, with the two-by-two pushing strategy that was necessary for anyone that wanted to run well. Nevertheless, initial ratings are showing ratings much-improved from last year, and even above 2009 levels.

One of the other things that stood out was that there were a number of drivers who finished in the top 10, who don't normally finish there. Unfortunately, Fox decided not to give any TV time to them, focusing on more well-known (read: well-sponsored) drivers who finished behind them.

Let's look at a few of them:

David Gilliland - 3rd: Gilliland nearly pushed Carl Edwards to the win, but Trevor Bayne wisely blocked, ensuring his win. He had a 2nd place finish at Sonoma in 2008, but otherwise has had average finishes in the high 20s to low 30s. He didn't show much strength earlier in the race, but survived to the end of the race and drove his Taco Bell Ford Fusion to the highest-ever finish for Front Row Motorsports.

Gilliland was let go by Yates for lack of sponsorship after the 2008 season. He drove most of the 2009 season for TRG Motorsports, finishing out that season in a fourth Joe Gibbs car. He missed the Daytona 500 last year, but drove the rest of the season for Front Row, and finished 32nd in driver points.

Bobby Labonte - 4th: Labonte gave Trevor Bayne the initial push to get out front on the final restart. This was the 2000 champion's first start for JTG Daugherty. He missed wrecks earlier while running mid-pack, preserving his Kroger Toyota for the finish.

Labonte has floated from team to team in recent years after leaving Joe Gibbs. He's driven for Petty Enterprises, Hall of Fame Racing, TRG Motorsports, Robby Gordon, James Finch and brother Terry. This looks to be a more stable environment this year with a solid set of sponsors. Starting off the season with a top five can't hurt.

Regan Smith - 7th. Unlike Gilliland and Labonte, Smith ran up front pretty much all day. Whenever he would get mired back in the pack due to pit issues or strategy, he was pushing someone to the front within a handful of laps. He had worked with Kurt Busch most of Speedweeks, pushing Busch to his Gatorade Duel victory, taking a 2nd place finish. Near the end of the race, Busch was pushed hard into Smith's bumper by Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., causing the Furniture Row Chevy Impala to spin into several other cars. The damage was not extensive, though, and he managed to get a push from Kyle Busch, resulting in his career-best finish, and the highest driver rating in the race.

This is Smith's third season driving for Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing. He had previously driven for Ginn Racing and its successor organization, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., where he nearly drove to victory at Talledega Superspeedway, losing out to Tony Stewart after a controversial double-yellow-line ruling. The team made continuous progress last year, and looks to contend for a top 20 points finish this year.