The pinnacle of professional stock-car racing is the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, which replaced the Winston Cup Series in 2004 and introduced a new scoring system. During the Winston Cup era, equal points were awarded for all races, regardless of length or prize money. The driver who accumulated the most points during the season was crowned champion. When R.J. Reynolds Tobacco dropped its sponsorship after the 2003 season, NASCAR found a new sponsor in telecommunications giant Nextel and decided to change the scoring to make the sport more competitive.
Here's how the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, which will become the Sprint Cup Series in 2008, works. The season is basically divided into two parts. The first part includes 26 races at tracks across the United States. Drivers earn points based on their performance in each of these races. The table below summarizes how points are distributed:
Drivers can also earn five points for leading a lap. An additional five points go to the driver leading the most laps. That means a race winner can earn a maximum of 195 points -- 185 points for a first-place finish, plus five points if he leads a lap, plus five more points if he leads the most laps.
The first 26 races determine the qualifiers for a final 10-race competition to determine the champion. This final race-off is known as the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, or simply the Chase. The top 12 drivers after 26 races qualify for the Chase, but they don't get to bring their point totals with them. To increase competition and excitement for fans, they all have their point totals reset to 5,000. Drivers also receive a 10-point bonus for each race victory they had during the first 26 races. The points in the final 10 races are then determined as in any other race.
Often, the champion isn't determined until the final race of the season. Sometimes, if a driver has a big enough lead, he can clinch the title with two or three races left. Either way, this new system, which was tweaked in 2007 to the format described above, brings a level of excitement to NASCAR that is unrivaled in other motor sports. It has also introduced some measure of discord, especially among longtime fans and NASCAR purists. These fans believe the NASCAR Nextel Cup renders the first 26 races unimportant, or certainly less important. They also argue that the intense competition promised by the Cup has not been delivered, with races coming down to two drivers instead of several.