RICHMOND — It’s the rare NFL quarterback who trots off the field in defeat feeling happy about the yardage his offense gained.
But under a points system that has traditionally rewarded consistency over victory, that’s not a far cry from the reality NASCAR drivers have faced in pursuit of stock-car racing’s annual championship.
It’s derisively known as “points racing,” when a driver approaches a race as interested in collecting points as he is in winning.
In terms of big-picture strategy, it has made sense. But points racing isn’t popular with fans. Nor does it sell tickets or keep TV viewers from changing the channel.
That’s largely why NASCAR officials in January revamped the sport’s postseason format for the fourth time in the past 10 years.
As NASCAR heads to Richmond International Raceway for Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 , there’s mounting evidence that the overhaul is giving fans what they want: More emphasis on winning, more exciting finishes and a simpler formula for crowning NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion.
“People are just trying to take chances to get that win,” said Kevin Harvick, who won his second race of the season on a furious late charge at Darlington Raceway on April 12.
The drama of that finish, Harvick argues, is a direct result of the new postseason rules, which all but guarantee a driver a shot at the title if he wins any one of the 26 races that precede it.
Previously, NASCAR’s 10-race chase for the championship, introduced in 2004, had never rewarded drivers much for winning. But it penalized them harshly for finishing last, much like an “F” spoils an otherwise sterling grade-point average. Far better to shoot for a top-five finish than to gamble on a risky pass that will either win the race or blow it.
At Darlington, nearly a dozen drivers gambled late, taking two tires on a final pit stop rather than four, hoping the time saved would vault them to the front. A final caution flag bunched up the field and enabled Harvick, on four fresh tires, to whip around the ill-handling cars for the victory.
It has been a feast-or-famine season for Harvick, who has finished 36th or worse in four of the eight races to date. He’s a lowly 22nd in the points standings , yet he’s also the only driver with more than one victory, clinching his postseason berth.
“Having points is really irrelevant at this point,” Harvick said Friday. “You just go out and try to put your best foot forward every week to get a win and protect yourself as much as you can with as many wins as possible.”
No sport rewrites its rulebook as liberally as NASCAR, which has never hid from the fact that its brand of stock-car racing is part sport and part entertainment.
But Fox analyst Larry McReynolds, a veteran crew chief, argues that NASCAR is hardly alone in tweaking its rulebook — whether in response to fan sentiment or financial imperative.
He notes that big-time college football is finally adopting the playoff system fans have clamored for. The NFL has moved the location of kickoffs and added rules protecting quarterbacks. And virtually all sports face pressure to expand the size of their postseasons.
“Maybe we do it a little more frequently,” McReynolds said of NASCAR’s rules revisions, “but we’re not in the boat by ourself.”
Under the new format, 16 drivers qualify for the postseason, an increase from 12. So far this season, seven drivers have won the eight races. Those among them, such as Carl Edwards, now race with newfound abandon knowing they don’t have to worry about points.
“Right now I’m having so much fun coming to the racetrack,” said Edwards, who won at Bristol Motor Speedway in March. “We had been so focused on points position and qualifying up front in the past, I haven’t had as much fun as I’m having right now.
“We want to go for it to get another win. We will take a bigger risk, and I think a lot of people will do that. That is the mind-set in the garage, and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
At the same time, winless drivers are racing with heightened zeal, in the view of Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage. There are big names among them, such as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and three-time champion Tony Stewart.
“They’ll deny it all day long, but they’re beginning to feel the pressure, and we’re just a quarter of the way through the season,” Gossage said. “Every race is a big deal. Every race could win you the championship. It’s possible if you don’t win today, you’re not going to win this season.”
Moreover, once the 16-driver field is set after the first 26 races, the premium on winning is heightened because of a new elimination component.
After every three postseason races, four drivers will be culled from the championship field. That will leave just four drivers eligible for the title in the season finale. At that point, points don’t matter. The highest finisher among them in the final race wins.
“I like the fact that all we hear out of drivers now is about winning,” McReynolds said. “We don’t hear, ‘That was a good, solid points day.’ This is what it should be about: It’s about winning.”