An offseason of (points) change
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine if Jeff Gordon received 50 bonus points for leading the first 26 races in 2004. Or if Kevin Harvick received the same amount this past season for dominating NASCAR's so-called regular season.
Gordon would have five championships instead of four, Jimmie Johnson's run would have ended in 2009 at four and Harvick would be the one everybody is talking about as the defending champion.
Imagine if a driver received significantly more points for a win. Johnson would have won the 2004 title he lost by eight to Kurt Busch because he had four Chase wins to Busch's one, Kyle Busch would have made the 2009 Chase instead of Brian Vickers and well, you see the possibilities.
You may not have to imagine in 2011.
NASCAR is seriously considering changes to the points system to reward the regular-season winner and give more points for wins.
Rulers of the governing body also are looking at expanding the field from 12 to 15 and resetting the points at some point during the Chase to create the kind of drama there was in this season's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But let's stay focused on the former.
Some in NASCAR have come to the conclusion I did a few years ago that the regular-season champion shouldn't be penalized so harshly for maintaining the consistency that the sport always has been about.
Since the Chase seeding system was changed in 2007 to rank drivers based on 10 points received for wins, only once -- 2008 with Kyle Busch -- has the regular-season leader entered the playoffs in the lead.
As one NASCAR official recently told me, that doesn't seem quite fair.
Gordon agreed when asked at the season-ending banquet if he'd like to see the regular-season leader rewarded with points.
"That's a good idea," he said. "If you're leading the points going in, I really don't think you should be fifth or sixth because you didn't win a race."
It hasn't been quite that bad. The regular-season leader started the past two Chases third, and Gordon was second in 2007. But it's the mere principle of handicapping a driver that has been dominant for two-thirds of the season that has the governing body looking at a change.
Harvick went from 228 points ahead to 30 back this past season because he won three races to Denny Hamlin's six and Johnson's five. In '07, Gordon went from 312 up to 20 back.
In each of those cases, had they played the season out under the old format, the regular-season champion would have won the title going away.
By rewarding bonus points for the first 26 races, NASCAR creates incentive for drivers and crew chiefs to put more effort into winning that portion of the season. There'll be less experimenting as you've heard some teams say because they know at worst the deficit will be miniscule if they win a handful of races.
In other words, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus won't spend half of the summer working on what will make them stronger during the final 10 races.
"We have been experimenting once we got our butts kicked and knew we were behind," Johnson said. "That's the luxury of the Chase. Instead of worrying about that top spot all the time, you're worrying about that 12th spot.
"So there is an argument to be had the fact there isn't a ton on the line that first 26 makes for a better 10. We've seen it help us this year. We saw it happen in '08 where we tested 26 times."
Since the seeding has been based on wins, Johnson's average regular-season finish is fourth with an average of 322.5 points behind first. Even before the seeding was changed, he never was higher than second.
"Maybe we would be a little more agitated by losing points [in the first 26]," Johnson said. "I probably wouldn't take some of the risks I did during the season and crash a couple of cars. But the majority of the effort and work load is still the same. You may race for points a little smarter. You may not.
I feel there should be something: points, cash prize, plastic trophy, something a six-pack of beer something for winning that first 26.” -- Phillies third baseman Greg Dobbs
"I think you would probably go more on the conservative side because there is some value to it."
If NASCAR is worried that awarding 50 points -- and that purely is an arbitrary number -- to the regular-season champ will hurt the chance of a close finale, it is misguided. This would only enhance drama.
We've already determined it would have changed the champion in 2004 and 2010, with close margins in both. Had Matt Kenseth had an additional 50 points at the end in 2006, he would have lost the title by only six points. Gordon would have finished only 27 down to Johnson in 2007.
Who knows how strategy would have played out and things would have turned out if the battles had been that tight going to Homestead.
Throw in more bonus points for wins and that would intensify things even more. Maybe just a simple tweak like this will create what NASCAR chairman Brian France calls Game 7 moments and the governing body won't have to get gimmicky with late-Chase resets.
It would definitely get the sport a little closer to the old format in which the leader after 26 races doesn't appear to get the shaft. It doesn't Johnson-proof the system -- Johnson still would have won four straight -- but it does change the approach to the first 26 races and adds potential for more intrigue in the Chase.
"I feel there should be something: points, cash prize, plastic trophy, something a six-pack of beer something for winning that first 26," Johnson said.
Not everybody will like it. Kyle Busch, like many of you that have been so outspoken on email and Twitter, doesn't like the Chase at all.
"Whoever scores the most points in 36 races wins," Busch said. "That's the way it kind of was forever. I always liked it the way it was."
But change is coming and will be announced sometime in January.
Just imagine how different things might be.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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