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The Pros and Cons of the Winston Cup Points System

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Joshua Lipowski

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In NASCAR, like everything else in life, many people like to reminisce about the “Good Old Days” when things were better or simpler, just because. One of the things fans like to reminisce about is the old “Winston Cup” points system which was as simple as points systems get. Drivers raced through 36 races and whoever scored the most points based on how they finished in races at the end of the season wins the Championship.

However, @NWCS_Standings on Twitter keeps track of the standings as if NASCAR was still under that system to this day. Many point out how, under this format, seven drivers would have been within one race of the top spot with the top three separated by only 16 points.

What if NASCAR were to go back to this points system, and what kind of impact would it have on NASCAR today? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of going back to the Winston Cup Points format.

Pro: It’s Simple!

The modern Playoff system is understandably criticized for how complicated it is. Sure, a die-hard NASCAR fan could pick it up, but the average casual race fan may have a hard time fully grasping the concept of the Round of 12, Playoff points, cut-off lines, etc. The Winston Cup points system is literally as simple as it gets.

The higher you finish in a race, the more points you score. The one who ends the season with the most points wins the Championship. Yes, it truly is that simple, and it is easy for the average fan to understand. It’s even more simple than other sports Championship formats which include multiple divisions, wild cards, Playoff seeding, etc.

Say what you will about the old system, it was easy to understand. To be honest, that could be a reason why NASCAR had the boom it did in the 1990s. Fans could easily grasp the concept of its’ Championship, which made it that much easier and more fun to follow week after week.

Con: It Can Be Bland

Many people complain that certain sports seasons are too long, and NASCAR is no exception. While, yes, the Winston Cup format is easy to understand, it can be tough to get excited about the Championship standings in race 15 out of a 36-race season. It can make those early or mid-season races feel like busy work as you wait for the Championship to play out.

It can also hurt at the end of the season if a driver runs away with the point lead. Now, the current Playoff format is not immune to this problem either as the current format puts such a large emphasis on the last 10 races that the first 26 can feel like busy work to some people. However, the current win-and-you’re-in system means that every regular season race has an impact on how those final 10 will play out because of Playoff points.

The long season is going to make the middle portion of the season feel like a long slog regardless of what format you use. The Winston Cup format means that every race matters equally, but that does mean the middle of the season feels like it blends together. The Playoff format puts a microscope on the final 10 races, but the mid-season races have at least some impact on how those play out.

Pro: It Rewards Consistency and Dominant Drivers

The key to winning a Championship in the Winston Cup points format is consistency. The driver with the most consistently good performance throughout a full 36-race season wins the Championship. If a driver happens to dominate a season by winning a bunch of races with a stupid amount of top-5s, then so be it.

There truly is something to be said for consistently running up front and staying out of trouble. There also is something to be said for a dominant driver enjoying a massive points lead he earned throughout the season. Even if it does mean the Championship is a runaway, it’s not like the driver did not earn it.

What the system rewards is the driver who stays out of the garage and runs up front throughout the season. That is pretty fair criteria for a Champion, but is it the right criteria?

Con: Does It Reward Wins and Good Finishes Enough?

Remember back when NASCAR was criticized for not winning wins enough? Yes, I remember those days, and the 2023 “Winston Cup” points showcase that very problem plus the problem of whether or not it rewards top finishers enough.

William Byron has a series-leading five wins and is tied for the lead in top-10s with 15, yet he sits eight in this scenario, 198 points out. Kyle Larson leads the series in top 5s with 13, yet he is sixth in the points standings, 139 points out in this scenario. Now, yes, both drivers have had their bouts of inconsistency this season, but, it can be tough for an average viewer to look at these stats and see that these guys are not even among the five best drivers in the sport according to this points system.

Under the current Playoff format, these guys are Championship favorites along with the current top-3 in the standings, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Chris Buescher. It may reward consistent drivers, but does the “Winston Cup” system reward those who win races and finish in the top 5 more than others enough?

Pro: Many Drivers Can Remain in the Fight Until the End of the Season

I mean, come on, having seven different drivers within at least one race of the points lead heading into the final seven races of the season? I mean, that is just awesome, and it is a lot of fun to watch. It is also nice that in the “Winston Cup” points format, one bad race does not derail the entire season.

Under the current Playoff format, one bad race at exactly the wrong time can be the difference between winning a Championship and not. It does not matter how well you have been throughout the duration of the season if you do not finish well at the wrong time. This is regardless of whether that issue is by driver fault, team fault, or just a freak accident.

Under the “Winston Cup” format, you always have a chance to get yourself back into it throughout the season until the final few races. William Byron may be 198 points out now, but a few good races and he is back in contention. That is a benefit of the “Winston Cup” format.

Con: It Can Set Up Anti-Climactic Points Finishes

While there are years when the format sets up exciting points battles like this theoretical one, it also sets up some anti-climactic points finishes. Many years, the Champion is seen as a lock weeks in advance, and all they have to do is putter around finishing 7th to 10th the final few races to lock up the Cup. That is not that exciting to certain viewers.

Back to the lack of emphasis on winning, is it that exciting to watch the Championship favorite cruise around waiting to win his Championship instead of going all-out to win every race? Sure, they want to win every race, but they also know that they cannot go after wins at all cost or they could lose their points lead. You cannot blame them or criticize them too heavily for thinking that way.

As complicated and flawed as the current Playoff system is, it places a large emphasis on winning races. Drivers who win races are rewarded with great bonuses, and the Championship each of the last nine seasons in the Cup Series has required a win in the final race to get it done. It may be created by the system, but it sets up incredible moments of high drama that the old system showed less often.

Conclusion

There truly are a lot of merits to the “Winston Cup” points system, but is it right of NASCAR to move back to it in favor of the current Playoff system? NASCAR is likely never moving back to the old system anytime soon, but some would love to see this system come back. However, if it does, they need to be willing to accept the detractors that go along with the positives.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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