News & Media

Evolution of the NASCAR championship

November 13, 2012, Mark Aumann,

R.J. Reynolds played key role in getting drivers to focus on winning season title

The methods of determining it have changed over time, but every driver in the garage area at Homestead-Miami Speedway will tell you the goal is the same as it was in 1949: to take home the NASCAR championship trophy at the end of the season.

Why the championship has grown in importance can be traced back to two key series sponsorships.

Brad Keselowski is just 400 miles from adding his name to the long list of Cup champions, which includes NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett. Jarrett always felt winning a season championship was the ultimate goal, even though many drivers in that era concentrated instead on trying to win races which paid the biggest purses.

When drivers had full-time jobs elsewhere -- and teams only had one car -- making enough money to make it to the next race was sometimes a bigger consideration than taking home a shiny silver trophy.

"I ran all of the races from 1960 to 1965 because my goal was to win the championship. R.J. Reynolds not only put more emphasis on the championship, but the sport in general."


For example, only eight drivers started 40 or more races in 1961, the year Jarrett won his first championship. He won just once in 46 starts -- compared to the seven victories accrued by both Rex White and Junior Johnson -- but Jarrett accumulated the most points under a system which counted both finishes and a percentage of money earned.

In 1965, Jarrett ran two more races, had four more victories and made nearly twice as much money as runner-up Dick Hutcherson, and won his second title by more than 3,000 points. Johnson scored just as many wins as Jarrett in 18 fewer races -- and made more than $60,000 -- but finished 12th in the points. He wound up behind Wendell Scott, Bob Derrington, Soapy Castles and G.C. Spencer, all winless that season -- but they each ran enough additional events to negate Johnson's victories.

That strategy really didn't change until the mid-1970s. About the time NASCAR entered its "Modern Era" by eliminating smaller tracks and shortening the schedule, series sponsor R.J. Reynolds began to offer bonus money through the points fund in an effort to increase the number of cars.

"I ran all of the races from 1960 to 1965 because my goal was to win the championship," Jarrett said. "R.J. Reynolds not only put more emphasis on the championship, but the sport in general."

Even then, the idea of running every race was still slow to catch on -- although to be honest, the lack of factory support and an economic recession had as much to do with car counts as any other variable. In 1975, the first season in which Bob Latford's new simplified points system was used, only seven drivers started all 30 races. That number increased to 14 the following season.

And when television networks eventually bought into Bill France Jr.'s vision of a series national in scope and attention, purse money increased exponentially -- and the championship took on even greater significance.

Like everything else in the sport, NASCAR's point system has had a long -- and sometimes confusing -- evolution. For much of the first three decades, NASCAR officials used some sort of scale with a multiplier. In 1949, for example, the top 10 finishers for each race were awarded points -- 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, and so on -- multiplied by a percentage of the race purse.

By 1968, race distances had replaced purse money as the multiplier. And then things got crazy. In 1972, NASCAR decided to double the points and add laps completed. Two years later, they decided starts were also important. But as the formula become more complex, nobody could figure out who was leading without a calculator.

In the summer of 1974, Bill France Sr. called Latford -- a former high school classmate of France Jr. and a long-time motorsports public relations official -- into his office with a proposition. Could Latford come up with a better solution?

According to longtime PR rep Phil Holmer, Latford went back to his office and started thinking about how to create a simple but elegant points system that took into consideration several key elements: a sliding scale based solely on finishing order, something that would reward consistency and make it imperative for teams to run the entire schedule, and keep the scale narrow enough to provide for late-season championship battles.

The long-standing legend is that Latford and Holmer drew up the basis for the new points system on a bar napkin at the Boot Hill Saloon, but Holmer said that's more myth than reality.

"Bob pretty much had the points structure worked out in his mind before he ever got down to Daytona that winter," Holmer said. "But it does make for a good story."

Latford's points system worked well enough that it stayed in place until 2011, when NASCAR unveiled an even more simplified version, giving 43 points -- plus bonuses -- to the winner of each race, down to one point for the driver who finishes 43rd.

However, until the implementation of the Chase format in 2004, the championship had always been determined over the course of an entire season. Again, a change in series sponsor had a significant role to play.

When Nextel announced plans to take over sponsorship of NASCAR's premier division beginning in 2004, NASCAR chairman Brian France determined it was a perfect time to implement a new "playoff" format: The top 10 drivers in the standings after 26 races would compete over the final 10 races for the title.

Since then, the format has been tweaked over time. Two more drivers and a 10-point bonus for winning races was added in 2007. Four years later, the "wild card" format -- where the final two Chase berths were determined by wins -- was adopted.