Inside the Numbers: Can Bonus Points Make A Champion?

Opinions have cropped up over the past few years regarding NASCAR's point system, and whether or not it should be revamped. NASCAR made one change two years ago, by adding a 10-race "playoff" at the end of the season, known as "The Chase". Bu't it's not enough for some folks.

Short of completely changing the way a champion is crowned, some people think bonus points should be changed. Currently, a driver receives 5 bonus points if they lead a lap at any time during a race. They receive 10 bonus points if they lead the most laps.

But what about the person who leads the most important lap, the final one? Under the current system, the winner only gets 5 more points than the runner up, who gets 5 more points than the third place finisher. Should the gap between first and second place be larger, putting more importance on winning the race?

And what about leading off the first lap? Some people have suggested giving bonus points to the driver who wins the pole. Sure, you can assume that the pole sitter is going to get his 5 bonus points for leading the first lap, because that's where he's starting. But it's not the case one hundred percent of the time. Sometimes that person had a great qualifying setup, but gets passed on the very first lap and fails to get his bonus points for leading a lap. Should there be bonus points for being the fastest qualifier? Or is getting the first pit stall selection reward enough?

With all this talk of bonus points, I began to wonder how much of an effect those points actually have on a championship. Do they really add up enough to make a difference?

Over the 26 races leading up to the Chase, leading a lap every week would come out to 130 points. And it could be more if you were to lead the most laps on occasion. 130 points was the difference between 10th and almost 14th place last yearŠ the difference between making and not making the chase.

Of course, the people you're racing against may also be earning those bonus points. So, I decided to do a little research into who earned how many bonus points over the past four years, and whether it would have made a difference?

Four Years of Bonus Points

Going back to 2002, before "the Chase" began, Tony Stewart won the season championship by a mere 38 points. Would lap-leading bonus points have made a difference? Stewart earned 105 bonus points throughout the season. He led at least one lap in 17 races, and led the most laps in 4. Mark Martin, who finished the season in 2nd place, earned 80 bonus points. He led a lap in 15 races, and led the most once. If you take away all those points, the result would have been the same, with Stewart as the champion. But, it would have been much closer, with Stewart only winning by 13 points. With point totals that close, it would have made things even more exciting at the end, and could possibly have affected the teams' strategies.

2003 showed similar results. Matt Kenseth won the season by 90 points over Jimmie Johnson. Bonus points wouldn't have changed that result, but it would have made things a bit more interesting.

When I looked into the 2004 season, I found a completely different story. Let's start with the race to make the Chase.

Ryan Newman made the Chase, beating out Jamie McMurray by only 15 points. Kasey Kahne only missed out by 28. Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Jarrett were also very close. So, how much did the bonus points matter? If you take away Newman's 80 bonus points (15 races leading a lap, 1 leading the most) and McMurray's 30 bonus points (leading a lap in 6 races), Ryan Newman would not have been in the Chase at all. The 10th spot would have gone to McMurray. In fact, Newman wouldn't have even finished 11th. That distinction would have gone to Bobby Labonte. So bonus points definitely played a role in those standings.

And what about season champion Kurt Busch? He only beat Jimmie Johnson by 8 points. Well, during the 10-race chase, Busch earned 55 bonus points (9 races with a lap led, 2 with the most). Johnson earned only 30 bonus points (6 races with a lap led). Take away the bonus points, and we have a new champion folks! In fact, Kurt Busch would have finished THIRD, behind both Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Bonus points were apparently VERY important.

2005 was similar to the earlier years. Here, bonus points wouldn't have made substantial changes to the championship, or the race for the Chase, but not having them would have made things much closer than they were, and possibly affected the strategies employed by the drivers in the final races.

So does this mean that under the current points system, it's more important to lead a lap and get your bonus points, than it is to actually win the race? Maybe not, but it certainly is a factor.

Does the point system need to be revamped? Maybe, maybe not. But before people start throwing around bonus point suggestions, they may want to take a closer look at just how those points would affect the outcome of the season.

Tony Stewart tries to repeat with Bonus Points

A few of the "experts" have predicted that Tony Stewart will repeat as champion. Others disagree, saying he won't be able to duplicate last year's success. Well, if bonus points are in fact a major key in winning a championship, Stewart is definitely on the right track (pun intended).

After six races, Stewart is the only driver (yes, that's only, as in one-out-of-one) who has earned bonus points in every race. How did I figure that? Take a look.

At Daytona, 17 drivers led at least one lap, and earned their 5 bonus points.

Of those 17, 10 failed to lead a lap at California, dropping the list of names quickly to 7.

At Las Vegas, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed out on bonus points, taking them off the list of names.

Atlanta took Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth off of the list, leaving only Stewart, and Greg Biffle.

Those two drivers each led a lap at Bristol, but Biffle didn't lead any laps at Martinsville, leaving only Tony Stewart remaining.

And in addition to leading at least one lap in every race, Stewart led the most laps in two of the six races (Bristol and Martinsville), giving him even more bonus points.

Is it enough to overcome the engine trouble that removed him from California? Or the flat tire with nine laps to go that dropped him to 21st at Las Vegas? Only time will tell. But getting extra points thrown your way week after week certainly can't hurt!

Published on April 6, 2006 in