By luck or by design, the IndyCar Series has staged three remarkably close and competitive championships in a row.
Since 2006, the IndyCar Series title has literally been in question until the last corner of the last lap of the season. In 2006, two drivers ended the season equal on points and the championship was decided on a tiebreaker, and in 2007, the championship crown transferred from one driver to another within a couple hundred yards of the checkered flag.
The IndyCar points system is a hybrid that combines some of the best features of point-allocation systems used by other forms of motorsports around the world. Like the classic Formula One system used from 1950-90, winning an IndyCar Series race awards substantially more points than finishing second; like NASCAR, every starter in the IndyCar field receives points at the end of the day.
The winner of an IndyCar race is awarded 50 points, with second place receiving 40 points. The third-place finisher gets 32 points, dropping in 2-point increments from fourth (30) through 10th place (20). Then the distribution drops in 1-point increments through 17th place; finishing 18th through 24th earns a driver 12 points, and below that will garner a driver 10 points.
"I think our system is the best compromise of all worlds, and all the credit goes to Donald Davidson and Joie Chitwood," said Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League competition president. "When Joie was an employee of the Indy Racing League, Leo Mehl asked him to sit down with Donald and examine the point systems used by sanctioning organizations around the world to develop a point system for the IndyCar Series.
"They created it, and I think the experiences that we've had since that system has been in place bear it out to be a great system," Barnhart continued. "We don't have to re-seed; we don't have to artificially change results each season, and it's not uncommon for our championship not only to come down to the last event, but to the last lap of the last event. And it can't get any better than that."
Just for fun, we decided to hypothetically calculate how the IndyCar championship would have been altered using some of the point-scoring systems that Davidson and Chitwood used when they created the IndyCar system. The results are surprising and somewhat startling.
Formula One's scoring system has traditionally been the toughest in racing, rewarding excellence by meting out points to only the absolute top finishers while not resorting to gimmicks such as bonus points for laps led or pole positions. From the inception of the World Championship in 1950 through 2002, F1 awarded points to only the top six finishers; the classic 9-6-4-3-2-1 scoring system was altered slightly in 1991, granting race winners 10 points to place more emphasis on wins over consistency.
The FIA overhauled the system in 2003 to allocate points to the top eight race finishers, mainly in an effort to prevent Michael Schumacher from running away with another championship. The tactic did not work, as the great German won the title again in 2003 and '04 on top of the three in a row he had already claimed from 2000-02. F1 has maintained its 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system since then, still refusing to issue any form of bonus points.
Applying Formula One scoring to the last three years of IndyCar Series competition produces some interesting results. In 2008, Scott Dixon would have accumulated a relatively comfortable 87-81 advantage over Helio Castroneves using the old method counting only top-6 finishes. However, if top-8 finishes are factored in, the two drivers would have tied with 109 points each, with Dixon winning the title on the basis of his six race wins to Castroneves' two.
Dixon would have preferred Formula One scoring in 2007, when he lost out to Dario Franchitti in the IndyCar Series championship. Had either F1 system been in effect, Dixon would have been the 2007 IndyCar champion -- by an 81-78 margin using top-6 finishes, and by a narrow 104-103 squeaker when the points award is expanded to the top 8.
The F1 system produces some even more interesting changes when applied to the 2006 IndyCar championship. Using the top-6 method, Sam Hornish Jr. would still have won the '06 title, accumulating only 56 points. Castroneves would have moved up from third to second by this calculation, with 54 points, while Dan Wheldon, who tied Hornish on points using the IRL system but lost on a tiebreaker, would have tied for third with his teammate Dixon, each scoring 51 points.
Using the current F1 system, the 2006 championship would have undergone an even bigger shakeup. Castroneves, who finished outside the top eight only twice, would have been the champion with 72 points, closely followed by Hornish (71), Wheldon (70) and Dixon (69). What an amazing finish that would have been!
Championship Auto Racing Teams took over as the dominant sanctioning body in American open-wheel racing in 1979, but it was not until 1983 that CART introduced the scoring system that was utilized until the organization's bankruptcy in 2003. Points were distributed to the top 12 finishers, with a 4-point gap between finishing first and second giving a bit of additional emphasis on winning races. The full breakdown is 20-16-14-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1, with additional bonus points awarded for pole position and leading the most laps.
The CART scoring system would have created a different championship result in the IndyCar Series in two of the last three years -- and Castroneves might want to lobby the Indy Racing League to adopt this system. Despite winning only two races this year, Castroneves would have beaten Dixon to the crown by a 237-235 margin, and Castroneves would have also triumphed in the closely fought four-man championship battle in 2006, accumulating 167 points to the 165 scored by actual points leaders Hornish and Wheldon.
Dixon would have come in fourth in 2006 with 157 CART points, and he would also have ended second best in 2007, by a 236-228 margin to Franchitti.
Paul Gentilozzi was a minority owner of Champ Car when it took over sanction of the CART series, but he used his influence to institute a new points system that was used from 2004-07 -- the same points system that had been used during the time that Gentilozzi was the owner of the Trans-Am sports car championship. This system awarded points to the top 20 finishers, with only a tiny emphasis placed on winning races. The full points breakdown is 31-27-25-23-21-19-17-15-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. In addition, bonus points were awarded in four categories (pole position, most laps led, fastest lap, and most positions gained).
Once again, an alternate scoring system would have changed the IndyCar championship result in two of the last three years. Castroneves would have scored another mythical championship in 2008, notching 426 points to Dixon's 423. The championship ranking in 2007 would have been the same (Franchitti 427, Dixon 417), but the 2006 ranking would have been shaken up: Wheldon would have been the 2006 titlist with 308 points, followed by Castroneves (up one position to second with 305 points), Hornish (down two with 301 points) and Dixon (300).
In the world of NASCAR, everyone receives points if they start a race, with the slimmest of a bonus awarded to race winners. A victory will earn a driver a 15-point advantage over second place, with the point difference between positions dropping to 5 points for finishing second through sixth. There is a 4-point gap for 6th through 11th, then 3 points difference through the rest of the field. Bonus points are awarded every race; every driver who leads a lap gets 5 points, and the driver who leads the most laps gets another 5 points.
This system has produced anomalies like Matt Kenseth winning the 2003 championship with only one race win, while Ryan Newman was a distant sixth in the standings despite winning eight races. That unlikely statistic was almost directly responsible for the creation of the controversial "Chase for the Cup," which itself generates its share of "What if ?" points calculations every year.
Applying NASCAR's complicated formula to the last three IndyCar championships, we find that the 2007 and '08 results would have been the same. Dixon would have won this year's title by a razor-thin margin, 2859-2856 over Castroneves. Dixon would have scored 2852 points a year earlier, second best to Franchitti's total of 2866.
However, the 2006 season would have crowned a different champion, with Wheldon beating Hornish by a 2273-2259 margin. Castroneves would have edged Dixon for third, 2244-2242.
What does it all mean? Not much. But the moral of the story is that every lap of every season could ultimately have an impact on the championship, every position is worth fighting for, and every botched strategy call or bungled pit stop could ultimately be the difference between being the best or simply being the best of the rest.
Still, Barnhart revealed that even the proven IndyCar Series system may undergo a bit of fine-tuning, mainly to acknowledge the increased emphasis the series places on road racing these days.
"As we move toward a more diversified schedule, the IndyCar Series is the truest test of a driver in the world," he said. "We just finished rule-book meetings, and one of the things we considered is more points for pole at road and street course meetings. It may be appropriate to award points for our Firestone Fast Six knockout format, and we're looking at that as a change for 2009."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.