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WAID’S WORLD: Like It Or Not, The Championship Format Changed – And Might Again

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This was the first year of “stage racing” and other amendments to NASCAR’s current playoff system. And, I believe, no one has any complaints over the champion, Martin Truex Jr., who – let’s face it – would have won the title under any system.

You might not approve of the present system for a lot of reasons, namely, it’s convoluted, it’s unfair, it’s just another Brian France gimmick that does not work.

OK, fine. But the way it used to be wasn’t perfect. That can pretty much be said of everything.

Once the point system was just that – a method to determine a champion based on points alone.

The driver who gained the most points over a 30, 32 or 36-race season was the champion. To get the highest number of points meant he had to have a consistent season.

For example if a driver won 10 races but failed to finish in 10 more, his chances for winning a title were practically nil.

But if he won five races and compiled more than 20 finishes among the top 10 the opportunity for a title was much greater.

A system of consistency didn’t please everyone. The most dominant complaint was that too often, the driver who won the most races wasn’t the champion.

The first time I heard that was in 1972 when Bobby Allison won 10 races and had 27 top-10 finishes and still couldn’t beat champ Richard Petty, who won eight times and had 28 top-10 finishes.

Problem was Allison failed to finish more races. Consistency won out.

That, I believe, is one reason why NASCAR continued to streamline and tweak the point system over the following years. But it never altered the foundation. Consistency was always the key to success.

But even with the adjustments NASCAR made, the system was far from perfect. Its biggest flaw, in the opinion of many, was that it often failed to provide competitive drama toward or at the end of a season.

Indeed there were many seasons in which all a driver had to do was start the final race, be it at Riverside or Atlanta, and the title was his.

Sometimes – which during the 1980s seemed more like most of the time – a driver claimed the championship well before the season finale. It usually happened at Rockingham. Dale Earnhardt did it more than once.

There were notable exceptions. The most celebrated happened at Atlanta, the finale of the 1992 season.

That race has been well chronicled and the subject of books. It is prominent in NASCAR lore because it evolved into a two-man duel between Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki.

As you no doubt know Kulwicki calculated that if he could lead the most laps he could win the title. He led one more lap than Elliott and became the champion by a mere 10 points, the closest margin in history under NASCAR’s system of the time.

As well remembered as that championship battle has become there was another that has largely faded into obscurity.

It happened in 1980.

Earnhardt was in his second year with team owner Rod Osterlund. In 1979 the young driver from Kannapolis, N.C., won a race and the Rookie of the Year title.

The final race was set for Ontario Motor Speedway in California. It was a magnificent 2.5-mile facility that was opened in 1970 – and had consistently lost money since.

But the track did have some notoriety. In 1979 Darrell Waltrip entered the race with a two-point lead over Richard Petty. The situation promised high drama.

But Waltrip, unfortunately, looped his car early in the race while Petty finished fifth in a close contest won by Benny Parsons.

Petty won the title by 11 points, the closest margin in NASCAR history until 1992.

In 1980 Earnhardt tried his hardest to give the championship to Cale Yarborough, already the winner of three consecutive titles from 1976-78.

Earnhardt pitted too early under a caution flag and lost a lap to the field. But he charged back – that was his style, after all – and wound up fifth, two positions behind Yarborough.

Earnhardt won the title, his first of seven, by 19 points.

Admittedly, that was pretty good stuff at Ontario in 1979-80. But only 15,000 fans saw Earnhardt win the title and its new owner, Chevron, tore down the debt-ridden track.

Over the next two decades NASCAR had few championship scraps that could provide similar drama. NASCAR realized things had to change, which they did after the 2003 season.

That wasn’t the only reason NASCAR created ”The Chase”, which in a short time became “The Playoffs” with stage racing.

Things will likely change in the future, no matter if we like it or not.

One thing is certain:

NASCAR won’t go back to the way it was.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

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Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.