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Reward consistency ... add intensity

9/25/2009 - NASCAR

DOVER, Del. -- Tony Stewart was visibly upset after last weekend's Chase opener at New Hampshire, not stopping for interviews following a 14th-place finish after being so media-friendly for most of what has been a dreamlike season.

The 179-point lead the driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing had before the standings were reset based on wins for the final 10 races had turned into sixth place and a 74-point deficit heading into Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway.

Not that we should be surprised he's in this position. Only twice since the playoff format was implemented in 2004 has the driver who would have led under the old point system following 26 races led after the first Chase race. Stewart did it in 2005 and Jeff Gordon was tied with teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007.

Only once has the driver who spent the regular season building a lead, in most cases substantial, gone on to win the title. Stewart did it in 2005.

From a fan standpoint, the playoff has been great. It has created drama that otherwise would have been gone. Do you really think anybody would have caught Gordon in 2007 with a 312-point lead? Or Kyle Busch last season with a 207-point lead?

But if you're the driver who built the lead it can't help but be a letdown. It doesn't seem fair, even though most will tell you this falls under the "it is what it is" category.

Maybe there is a solution. Maybe NASCAR should consider giving the driver who has been the most consistent going into the Chase a 50-point bonus.

In most other sports the reward for having the best record is home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Since there is no home field in motorsports, a bonus seems reasonable to recognize the regular-season champion.

It might also create more drama. Matt Kenseth lost the 2006 title by 56 points. Imagine the added intensity it would have added going into the final race with the bonus points.

Gordon would have won the 2004 title with the proposed bonus and finished within 27 of Johnson in 2007. Again, added drama. The extra pressure on Johnson might have forced him to make a mistake that could have changed the outcome and made him the two-time defending champion instead of three.

Stewart says that he's OK with the system, that it doesn't need to be changed. You have to respect that even though he would be in far better shape -- and probably a far better mood -- if he had the bonus points.

"Everybody knows what the system is going into it," Stewart said between practices Friday. "I don't know why everybody tries to reinvent the wheel. The system is a simple system. It's easy to understand. It doesn't need to be complicated by trying to throw more numbers in there to confuse the fans. It's a good system the way it is."

But maybe it could be better with a minor tweak. Maybe it wouldn't frustrate fans who have watched their drivers work so hard to build a lead see it vanquish so fast.

"It's not a frustrating position," Stewart insisted. "I don't care if I was leading by a thousand points; it's not frustrating to lose those points because you know going into the season that when we get to the Chase we're all going to have the same number of points plus race wins we have -- 10 bonus points [for each].

"Don't try to make controversy out of this that doesn't need to be there. It's a fair system; it's a system we all understand and we all know. We all know where it is going into it, and nobody's complained about it."

That apparently is true. From points leader Mark Martin to Gordon, nobody is campaigning for a change.

"They've got it pretty good right now," Gordon said of the governing body. "If you're consistent, you're in the Chase. If you win races, you get bonus points for that. They've got it down pretty good to me."

Nobody is feeling sorry for Stewart, who has had a lot go wrong the last five races and hasn't had a top-10 since winning at Watkins Glen on Aug. 10.

Finding a sympathetic driver is about as difficult as finding a five-star restaurant in Dover.

"Not feeling any sympathy right now," said Martin, who jumped to the top of the standings when the Chase began because of his series-leading four wins, then padded that with a victory at New Hampshire. "Not really."

Nor should he be. Let him explain.

"Well, they did the Chase to make it more exciting," he said. "Just like they did the double-wide restart. There's going to be winners and losers. The only way you can make more excitement, more drama, is stand a chance of mixing it up or changing the outcome if you really want to simplify it.

"Or at least put the element of chance more likely."

That doesn't mean it couldn't be better.

The good news for Stewart is that he's in much better shape than last year's regular-season champion was coming into Dover and leaving. A failed jam nut on the sway bar at New Hampshire and a broken valve spring at Dover took Busch from dominant during the regular season with eight wins to an also-ran.

"We're out of the title hunt," Busch said after this race a year ago. "That's for sure."

He was so dejected that he had no interest in going back on the track to salvage one or two spots even though his crew worked feverishly to repair the damage. Had he gotten a bonus for winning the regular season things may not have appeared so dismal.

It's just a thought, one that apparently won't get any consideration, although there are times Gordon would prefer the old system because his team would have six titles now instead of four.

"My driving style and my team have a better shot under the old format," said Gordon, in 10th place and 102 points out after entering the Chase in second. "That's something we have to work on, not NASCAR."

Again, it was just a thought.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.