Blog: "Winner's Dearth"

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Steve Kim, NASCAR correspondent

Imagine that you are a NASCAR racer. Imagine further that you win a race, say the Talladega. You are excited for sure. It is not easy to beat 42 well-honed drivers on any given Sunday. You are rewarded 48 points for the win. Then you ask yourself, 'is that really what I deserve?'

No. The winner (you in this case) deserves more. Way more. I will explain why.

First, let's go through the current points system. It's simple. The winner gets 43. The second place gets 42. The third place gets 41. This continues until if you are last, you get a point. Then there are the bonus points. The winner receives 3 bonus points. Any driver who leads a lap gets a bonus point. Any driver who leads the most laps gets an additional point. The maximum that any driver could attain is 48 points.

Based on this configuration, there are 951 total points to be shared among the driver per race. That's the whole pie. Of this pie, the winner gets about 4.9% of it (exact number depends on the bonus). That doesn't sounds quite right given that the second place gets 4.4% of that pie. Third place? 4.3% really not much difference. There is about 0.5% allocation difference between first and second. After that, it's about 0.1% allocation difference for each rank downward. (I list the percent allocation for the top ten finishers at the end of the article.)

... second place is just the first loser.

Dale Earnhardt Sr.

How does this system mirror the competitive spirit of NASCAR? I don't think it quite does. Dale Earnhardt Sr. said it best: "second place is just the first loser." In this case, the first loser gets about similar allocation of points as the first place winner. Worse, the second loser (third place) gets a similar allocation as the first loser and the winner. Unless ranks are sufficiently far off (say 5 to 10 rank difference), the point differences are not that significant.

It's not just anecdotal thought that points inequity. Based on the probability of outcomes, it is roughly twice more difficult to come in first than to come in top two. It's about three times as difficult to win versus getting top three. You see the pattern. So if the winner achieves an outcome that is twice as difficult as the second place finisher, doesn't that racer deserve points in excess of just 12 percent more?

The bottom line, without going through all permutations, is that the current system is a form of points subsidy from the higher finishers to the lower finishers. It works out that higher the finish, more the racer subsidizes the rest of the field beneath him.

That's worrisome given that when the reward system doesn't match reality, it usually distorts behavior.

In this case, it influences how racers perceive the value of winning. It also impacts how racers perceive coming in second versus third versus fourth, and so on. The value differences in ranks are blurred. In the racer's mind, is it worth the risk to attain a higher rank versus riding conservatively to gain top five or ten, maybe twelve. Is it worth fighting it out for that extra spot or two? The current system has the potential to create this sort of thinking that is likely to result in conservative pack type racing. (On a tangential note: vying for the two wildcard spots of the Chase and during the Chase itself is the only time winning becomes an all-out target.)

Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Here is a quote from Greg Biffle that exemplifies my thought on drive towards conservatism: "I made so many mistakes in being aggressive that I either crashed or won. I never got second or third or fourth. I either got last or I won. That was being too aggressive and taking too many chances. The moral of the story is don't try too hard. Second, third or fourth is OK. It doesn't have to be a victory every time, and sometimes you have a fifth-place car." How would Dale Sr. have reacted to something like this?

In contrast, here is a quote that is truly inspiring. It's from the Formula One great Ayrton Senna: "And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high." Shouldn't this be the attitude of all drivers? At least the top contenders? I don't think the current point system motivates drivers in this way. By creating a distorted influence toward the more conservative, we lose the battling spirit that the likes of Dale Earnhardt Sr. carried on for so many years.

As points of reference, I list below the percent of total points allocated for the top ten finishers.

Finish (Piece of the Pie)
1st (4.8%)
2nd (4.4%)
3rd (4.3%)
4th (4.2%)
5th (4.1%)
6th (4.0%)
7th (3.9%)
8th (3.8%)
9th (3.7%)
10th (3.6%)

(I previously discussed the extent of the challenge of winning: If You Ain't First...You Are Last. I think it's worth a read in context of this article.)

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Tags biffle, earnhardt, featured, nascar, senna, steve kim