There have been eight races run in this year's Chase. Tony Stewart has won four of them. He's not your points leader.
When NASCAR unveiled its new points system prior to the season, they claimed it rewarded winning more. It hasn't. In fact, the opposite is true, it's played out exactly as expected, and now NASCAR has some explaining to do.
Let's get this out of the way first: Carl Edwards, who leads Stewart by three points with two races to go, would be a deserving champion, even if he doesn't win a single race in the Chase. Edwards has unarguably been the most consistent driver over the course of the entire season and still maintains the best average finish in the Chase despite Stewart's winning ways (5.0 to Stewart's 7.3).
Still, what does it say about a championship structure when one participant has a 50-percent winning percentage, and yet, he's still losing to another who's 0-for-8?
I'll tell you: It's schizophrenic.
NASCAR deems winning important enough that it gives two wild-card berths into its playoffs based solely on wins. It then seeds the Chase according to wins. Yet, once the Chase begins, consistency trumps wins, evident by the fact that Stewart trails Edwards.
This is nothing new. Consistency has been the key to winning titles since the beginning of NASCAR. In 1963, Richard Petty won 14 races, Joe Weatherly three and Weatherly walked away with the title. Dale Earnhardt won the 1994 title despite winning half as many races at Rusty Wallace. And in 2005 en route to his second title, Stewart didn't win a single race in that year's Chase.
[Related: Chase watch: Stewart gaining on Edwards]
That Stewart still trails Edwards despite winning four races actually challenges the argument from old-school fans who characterize the Chase as some sort of gimmick. If consistency is what they want in their champion, then so far the Chase is giving it to them.
But crowning the most deserving driver as champion has never been NASCAR's issue – before the Chase or now. Only since they've tinkered with the points system have they created an inconsistency that wasn't there before.
Winning races has always been important, only now it's less important – six-percent less important. By installing the wild card to benefit race winners, NASCAR actually hurt Brad Keselowski. Under the old Chase rules, he would have been seeded third in this year's Chase; under the new ones, he was essentially last.
In regards to Stewart's situation now, he'd be leading under the old points structure, though he's not sweating it.
"I'm going to be real disappointed if people are trying to make a story out of a guy that's got four wins isn't leading the points," he said Sunday. "It's about 10 weeks, and you've got to be good for 10 weeks. You can't just sit there and throw it all away to try to win a race and get there."
Stewart will get no argument here. Like I said, Edwards would be a deserving champion, maybe even more so than Stewart, who was mediocre over the course of the first 26 races of the season.
That doesn't mean NASCAR's championship system isn't suffering from an identity crisis.
After 26 races, four drivers were more consistent then Kevin Harvick, yet NASCAR seeded him No. 1 based on his four wins. In that case, wins trumped consistency. In the Chase, the rules are reversed. Stewart's won four times, but sits second because of one 25th-place showing at Dover.
It doesn't have to be one or the other. Both wins and consistency can matter under a single points structure: Give a bigger bonus for wins and seed the Chase according to the standings at the end of the regular season. And get rid of the wild card. If you're consistent enough and you win races, the bonus for wins will put you in the top 12.
NASCAR has done so much tweaking to the Chase it's not likely to make another change, especially so soon. That's the problem when you don't get it right in the first place, or the second place or even the third place, which is where we are right now.
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