EDITORS NOTE: Tim Quievryn is the founder and operator of 51’s Third Turn, a historical short track results and information database. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Speed51.com as an entity.
On Wednesday, NASCAR named Anthony Anders its 2014 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National Champion, the 33rd national title awarded for NASCAR’s weekly racers. A lot of questions have been raised about Anders’ title run, from the role of start-and-parks and questions over tech favoritism, to the prevalence of twin features and complaints that Anders didn’t face his primary rival, Lee Pulliam, head-to-head enough to objectively say Anders’ season was better than Pulliam’s.
The problem with raising all these issues though is that there really aren’t any great solutions to fix them. Many of the controversies that arose in the 2014 points chase arose in 2013, in 2004, in 1984. Trying to fairly award a national champion between thousands of drivers across scores of racetracks separated by hundreds of miles is one of the most difficult things NASCAR has ever taken on. And as much as the 2014 season may have been controversial, the series point system is much better now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
My take away from the 2014 season was this: Anthony Anders is your 2014 National Champion because he had the most perfect season in an imperfect system.
First, let’s take a brief look at the history of the NASCAR Whelen All-American points system to understand why today’s iteration is the best. The series was introduced in 1982 with about 30 participating tracks split into five different regions. Drivers would earn points using the same system the NASCAR Winston Cup Series used. A win was worth 180 points, second was worth 170, so on and so forth. After the season, the 30 best finishes of the five regional champions would be compared and one driver named a national champion. The problem with this system is that it rewarded the drivers who could start the most races. Starting 50 races with 0 wins but 40 top-fives would place you far ahead in your regional standings of a driver who started and won 30 races.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, NASCAR scrapped that system for what they called the CPI, the Competition Performance Index. The CPI was something that felt as though it belonged more in a college-level calculus class than NASCAR grassroots racing. Here’s the official NASCAR explanation of that system: “The performance of the driver with the greatest number of points at a racetrack is compared against the performance of the points leaders from the other nine tracks in the region. This creates a top-10 ranking of drivers for that region, with the rankings constantly changing every week. The CPI number is determined by adding your winning percentage, average car count percentage, and percentage of available starts and then dividing the number by three.”
If your head hurts just trying to get all that, don’t worry, it was even worse in practice than on paper. It led to a number of confusing moments in crowning a national champion, most notably 1995. Greg Biffle had a phenomenal season that year at Portland Speedway and seemed to be a shoe-in for the regional title. But Larry Phillips, racing at Missouri’s I-44 Speedway (inexplicably lopped into the Pacific Coast region that season), had a late season charge and won the regional and de facto national title on something like the 20th tiebreaker.
NASCAR moved away from that system with a new points system in 2005. It lasted only two seasons mostly because it relied heavily upon randomness to determine a season’s champion. At the start of the year NASCAR would pool up all of the tracks competing in the series that season, split them up randomly into four divisions – with geography or car type considered – and use a simplified points system with a few bonus points put into place. The kicker was that you could earn extra division points outside of your home track by competing at other divisional tracks. Since the divisions were assigned randomly, both years’ national champions won in large part because they had other tracks in their area they could go race at while some of their top competitors were geographically unable to make the trip to go race elsewhere.
And so that leads us to where we are today, the state championship-based program that launched in 2007. NASCAR implemented some really good changes with this new system – a much more straightforward points system, capping both the number of races that could count towards a national title and the number of cars starting a race that would give you bonus points, and putting everyone in a national points pool as opposed to using the state-level championship battles to factor into the national title picture. The introduction of a state-level championship also allowed for more head-to-head match-ups for a NASCAR title. Steve Carlson, one of the greatest late model drivers of all-time won the national title in 2007 and it’s hard to find any argument there that he was a deserving champion.
The issue since is that racers have done what they do best – find gray areas in the rulebook and work to exploit those as much as possible. Let’s quickly address what the top issues with the current system are.
It starts with geography. None of the champions since Carlson have been solely focused on winning at a single track. Keith Rocco won the 2010 title by being able to compete at three different Connecticut tracks. Philip Morris and Lee Pulliam won their titles because there are about five NASCAR tracks that feature Late Model Stock Cars within 150 miles of each other. A lot of people are also missing that Anthony Anders’ title was, regardless of the controversies at Greenville Pickens, largely made possible because Anderson Motor Speedway, a 20-minute drive from Greenville, was added to the NASCAR Home Tracks program this year, effectively doubling the number of races Anders was able to compete in.
Next come start-and-parks. A max points opportunity for a driver comes when a field has at least 18 cars in it. A lot of eyebrows were raised this year when Greenville would feature 18-car races but only have a dozen or so make it past the first few laps as the others went to the pits. NASCAR’s points do not take into account how many cars go the full distance in a race. To think that was an issue that occurred just this year though is very short-sighted.
Plenty of times in the last few years at South Boston did a backup or even a second backup Pulliam or Morris car start the race and fall by the wayside after a few laps.
Lastly comes the complaints that having twin features allows for points manipulation. It’s not really an unfair criticism – as long as a track counts two separate races on the same night as “features” NASCAR counts both races towards national points. But to simply say that twin features need to be done away with is not fair to the tracks. Fans like twin features – they are shorter races with the possibility of new faces visiting victory lane. Small-budget teams, as long as the costs are controlled, often favor this system too because inversion usually gives them a shot at competing for the win in the second twin feature. The inversion has been more of the issue in recent years than twin features themselves. Philip Morris won many track titles at South Boston Speedway by winning the first feature and then promptly starting on pole for the second feature. NASCAR stepped in a few years ago and started awarding bonus points for drivers winning a race from a two-digit starting spot, encouraging tracks to do more twin feature inverts. Anders’ title margin this year owes mostly to these bonus points as tracks Anders raced at had a larger inversion number than Pulliam’s tracks.
In reality, NASCAR is faced with a near-impossible task. What fans love so much about short track racing – the variety of classes, tracks, and drivers – is what makes it so hard to empirically measure everyone equally. Anthony Anders’ 2014 title will continue to come under scrutiny for months to come but the way the system is set up is so fundamentally complex that ever coming up with a popular and statistical consensus national champion is unlikely. That doesn’t mean NASCAR shouldn’t keep making rules tweaks to try to improve upon issues as they arise. It just means that no series points system is ever going to be perfect.
Lee Pulliam had a great year, his best ever. Chad Finchum also had a career year. Chad Pendelton crushed the competition in Ohio while Steve Carlson was again the best in Wisconsin. Don’t let those stories be forgotten nor let Anders’ season be diminished. Anders won 30 races, and regardless of some of the circumstances, he didn’t just magically luck into victory lane. I’ve had the opportunity to interview Anders a few times for Speed51. He is a hard-working, grassroots racer, much like Pulliam, Keith Rocco and other drivers he battled for the championship this season. Celebrate the good aspects of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the blood, swear, and tears that go into being a local hero. If you’re upset by the outcome of this season, blame the system, not the champion.
– By Tim Quievryn, 51’s Third Turn. Photo Credit: Getty Images for NASCAR