CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR officials attempted to walk a tightrope yesterday as they unveiled their plan to overhaul the championship points system for the Nextel Cup Series, formerly the Winston Cup Series.
NASCAR president Mike Helton eased his way into the announcement, saying the organization wanted to continue its tradition of having a points system based on consistency.
"We're not changing much," he said. "We're adding five points to a race winner's point total."
And then he dropped the bombshell, saying the first 26 races of the season would be used, more or less, as qualifying events for the last 10 races of the season.
"Following the 26th race [in Richmond, Va.], every driver in the top 10 and anyone else within 400 points of the leader will qualify for the Chase for the Championship," Helton said.
"Managing and calculating change is part of business. ... When stock car racing went from the beach to paved ovals, there were skeptics. When the high banks were built at Daytona and Talladega, people debated. When stock cars went to Indy, people said it was a mistake.
"But, in each instance, NASCAR forged on ... [and] through it all NASCAR and its partners have benefited."
NASCAR anticipates benefiting again. Helton said the change will give more drivers a shot at the title and is designed to put more focus on the fall season and create interest when "we're in competition with other sports."
Upon hearing the details of the new system, car owner Ray Evernham voiced the discontent of many.
"We're no longer crowning a season-long champion," said Evernham, who also said he is concerned about keeping sponsors happy if their teams don't make the Chase.
"Now, we're crowning a 10-race champion. ... I applaud NASCAR for looking at changing it, but I'm happy [they] promised to change it again if it doesn't work."
The new system is designed to create interest in the championship race and boost TV ratings, which went flat over the final third of last season, a fact the sanctioning body wants to correct before entering negotiations for a new television contract with NBC in 2005.
The current contract expires in 2006.
Though the organization talked to track and team owners, drivers and fans before changing the system that has been in place since 1975, it failed to gain broad-based support from any of them.
Now, NASCAR faces a major public relations campaign to win over its participants and audience.
"I said before they made the announcement I didn't think we needed to change the points system," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of the late seven-time champion. "Now that they've done it, it does no one any good to complain about it. ...
"The only thing about it that is important to me is if I ever win a championship, how will it be compared to the championships my father won.
"Is it better? Worse? The same? If I look at the way they're going to do it now, my dad wouldn't have won some of his titles, and I don't like that very much."
In fact, if the new model had been in place for the points race in each of the past four seasons, only one driver -- Bobby Labonte -- would have won, and he would have been in a final-race battle with seven others.
NASCAR officials denied the change was in response to 2003 champion Matt Kenseth's season, in which he won just one race while leading the points standings for a modern-era-record 33 consecutive weeks. Under NASCAR's new system Kenseth would have finished sixth.
Second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson would have won the championship. Ryan Newman, who had a season-high eight victories, would have been third because he did not finish seven races.
Though Kenseth did what he had to do to succeed under the existing system, as did every other driver, it wasn't always exciting to watch.
The five extra points for the winner of each race are intended to make drivers push harder to cross the finish line first.
Before yesterday's announcement, Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler said he hoped there would be a major premium placed on winning so that it would put competition back into the races and give promoters something more to promote.
After he heard the NASCAR plan, Wheeler wasn't totally satisfied, but he was encouraged.
"It didn't go as far as I would have liked," he said. "But I do think it is going to increase the racing we see at events in the first two-thirds of the season, as drivers try to finish among the top 10 or 12."
Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup champion, who will compete on only a part-time basis this season, is happy to not be involved. But he said he knows how his fellow competitors will react.
"If NASCAR made a rule that said we had to put the body of the car on backward, teams would complain," he said. "But then they'd make the best of it."
Nextel Cup changes
NASCAR's revised points race is intended to sharpen competition in the former Winston Cup:
10-race "Chase for the Championship" will close the season. Top 10 drivers and any driver within 400 points of first place after the first 26 races will qualify for the Chase.
The first-place driver in the points standings will begin the final 10 races with 5,050 points, with incremental drops of five points for all those involved in the championship showdown.
Champion guaranteed a minimum $5 million prize.
Race winners will be awarded five extra points this season.