Hot/Not: New points system spreading Chase field more than before

The yellow flag waved a whole bunch at Martinsville, and the new, tighter points system is actually spreading apart the Chase more than last year. How? Jump in:

NEUTRAL: There's a lot to love about the point system NASCAR introduced for 2011. Chief among those is the simplicity, awarding one point for last place and sliding evenly to 43 for first (plus a three-point win bonus).

It's made life easier for fans looking to track how far back or ahead their driver is after races, and should prove quite interesting as the Chase runs its course over the next three races. It's already caused broadcasters to make the obvious and dubious assertion that the Chase is "closer than ever." You'll have that, of course, when the most points available at a single race are less than a third of the previous total.

But what should be noted is that NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup has more drivers facing higher hills to climb than they would have with the old point system. In other words, the cosmetic change to the point structure has played out as guessed and now points leader Carl Edwards has it easier than he would have without the change.

The reason Edwards is benefiting from the Chase is simple. The new system greatly awards consistency and harshly penalizes drivers who suffer bad finishes. It also doesn't give drivers who win an upper hand.

Such is no more clear than the case of Tony Stewart. Stewart, a winner for the third time in the Chase Sunday at Martinsville, stands eight points behind Edwards in the point standings. Using the 2010 system, Stewart would still trail Edwards but with a smaller six-point gap. And keep in mind, that would be under the old system, where six points equates to two positions on the track. As of now, Stewart is eight positions behind.

Not only would Stewart's deficit be lower in direct quantity, but he'd be much closer percentage-wise to Edwards. Consider this: the largest gain one driver can make on another this season during a single event is 47 points. A season ago, that number was 161 points. As a result, Stewart faces a margin equal to 17 percent of a possible points gain. Under the 2010 system, that number is cut to a tiny 3.7 percent.

Need a more simple comparison? Tony Stewart could lead the most laps and win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway — what would be his fourth win in eight races — and still leave Fort Worth trailing Edwards by three points if Edwards leads and finishes second. {ysp:more}

Under the 2010 system, a Texas win in the same situation for Stewart would slide him at least 14 points ahead of Edwards with two races left.

The 2011 system, however, does have another caveat that serves up wild swings — and helps make consistency more important than ever. A year ago, the fewest percentage of points a driver could earn in comparison to the winner stopped at 18 percent. This year? Any finish below 35th is below that mark with a 43rd-place finish earning just 2 percent of the winner's points.

Bottom line, bad finishes hurt more than ever, and good ones don't help as much. I've run the numbers and here is what I've come up with:

• Under the old points system, Brad Keselowski would be sitting ahead of Kevin Harvick and just 50 points behind Edwards with the three races left. Under the new system, he's fourth and looking at a significantly higher mountain to overcome than he would have under the old one.

• Jimmie Johnson, now sixth, would have a better chance to come back under the old structure than Matt Kenseth in fifth under the new standings.

Certainly much can changes in the next three events, and any amount of bad luck among the Chase frontrunners could drastically tighten the Chase. But the reverse is also possible, and more so than last year thanks to the new point standings.

It rained a lot in Martinsville, but the Sunday product was worth the wait. We'll try to contain the excitement.

HOT: 500 laps at Martinsville is always an arduous affair, but Sunday's 500 miles seemed to take a lot longer than normal thanks to the heavy use of the caution flag. That was a good thing, as one of NASCAR's most traditional tracks finally gave us some of its old flair — plenty of beat up cars, hot tempers and changes at (nearly) every corner.

Martinsville felt like Martinsvillle again, likely to the chagrin of most drivers. It's time for the other NASCAR short tracks to find that luster again, by whatever means are possible.

NOT: How, again, did we have not a single short track built during NASCAR's building boom? Or am I the only one not enthralled with races at Kansas, Chicago, Kentucky, et al?

"When we went through this big building process of all these mile and a half's, nobody considered building something more like a Bristol or a Richmond or something like that," Jeff Gordon said after Sunday's race. "I think that we need one or two more tracks like that on the circuit."

HOT: I liked Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s rambunctious style Sunday at Martinsville. It was mostly out of character for the often clean Earnhardt, but was one of the most visible displays of determination we've seen from the oft-criticized driver of late. That team is hungry, and they've got to be getting closer — right?

NOT: Brad Keselowski's late-race spin was purely bad luck and not his fault. It's a tough way to do it, but the result may be enough points to knock him from the role of championship contender he played.

NEUTRAL: Brian Vickers often gets a hot head on the race track, and his 164th incident of the day at Martinsville (roughly, of course) ultimately brought Tony Stewart to Jimmie Johnson's bumper. It's unfortunate that it changed the race's outcome, but seeing a fiery character on the track is not a bad thing at Martinsville. Not one bit.

HOT: Yeah, Carl Edwards is doing everything right. Did you know his worst finish in the Chase is 11th? He's weathered his worst tracks in about the best way possible.

HOT: A win by Tony Stewart at Texas would leave him batting .500 in the Chase. Not too shabby for the guy who wrote himself off and lost a few should-be wins in the regular season.

NEUTRAL: Denny Hamlin's fifth-place run was his first top five since Loudon in July. Would you have made a bet on that happening? Not me.

FINAL: NASCAR estimated 62,000 people were at Sunday's race. That's a number smaller than many NFL stadiums and not prone to being a heavy revenue stream for the sport. The racing, however, made up for it. Short tracks build the characters of NASCAR, and those additions to the storyline help make the rest of the NASCAR season hum.

I'll say it again — short tracks are the lifeblood of NASCAR. There aren't enough on the schedule, and it's time to fix the ones who've lost what they once were. I'm up for 500 more laps at Martinsville this Sunday, if they'd like.

But don't get me wrong — the implications of Sunday's race at Texas will make that very interesting. We'll see you then.

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