And to think, there are still folks who insist that the modern NASCAR Cup Series playoff format marginalizes season long results.
Martin Truex Jr.
What ultimately happened to each former Cup Series champion on Saturday in the Bristol Night Race, a playoff elimination race, was not a reflection of the small sample sizes of each round, but instead their entire bodies of work since February.
Harvick and Logano have been eliminated because they didn’t give themselves any first-round cushion over the first 26 races of the season. Harvick is winless in his final season while Logano went to victory lane just once in March at Atlanta.
Truex was the regular season champion, good for 15 additional bonus points, with three wins that paid a combined 15 points as well. So, when the worst possible misfortune struck him over the course of the Round of 16, he ultimately survived, while his fellow champions did not.
The current process isn’t perfect in the eyes of a racing purist, but it’s also the best possible format that balances season-long results with the drama of a small sample size playoff. To some, deciding the championship with a one-race de facto winner-take-all format where four drivers have an equal shot come the final race, will always be sacrosanct.
These are fair rebuttals, and individual mileage on the final 10 weeks may vary, but there is no doubt that what a team does from Daytona to Daytona absolutely factors into reaching the final four in November at Phoenix Raceway.
On the other hand …
The format also rewards a team for digging down deep and just making it happen, choose whatever inspirational sports metaphor you would prefer.
Bubba Wallace erased the second largest points deficit in the history of the current format (Chase Elliott made up 24 at Kansas in 2019) when he went from -19 to +4 by the end of the race. Sure, one could point to the misfortunes suffered by Logano and Harvick. But it’s also true that Wallace scored eight points with a third-place finish in the first stage and combined that with a 14th overall result to advance when it seemed like no one gave No. 23 a chance.
In a previous era of the sport, the championship battle by this point of the campaign would be mostly decided with only a handful of drivers in contention and needing misfortune to befall the points leader. Again, that’s the pure way to decide things, but there is no questioning all the ways this format keeps fans engaged with layers of narrative to follow over the autumn months.
For everything that went wrong for Truex over the first three races of the round, what he has accomplished to date has him right back atop the leaderboard, alongside William Byron, thanks to the reset that occurs after a batch of eliminations.
All of this is to say there are multiple paths to a championship under this format — be it through sustained success over the entire season or catching figurative fire during the races that count the most, and sometimes it’s a little of both.
Where we stand now
The second-round reset puts us right back where we were three weeks ago, with Truex and Byron having the clearest path to the final four.
But also remember that playoff points (five per win and one per stage win) carry over from round to round, so Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick have increased their odds to reach the championship race compared to the others still remaining. Brad Keselowski also marginally made a positive difference by scoring a stage win at Kansas and you never know if one point could ultimately make a difference, especially starting this round three below the cutline.
But that’s especially true for Hamlin after winning the Bristol Night Race combined with his two stage wins at Darlington. The Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team is peaking right now and gave themselves seven addition points over the cutline.
William Byron +25
Martin Truex Jr +25
Denny Hamlin +21
Kyle Larson +12
Chris Buescher +10
Kyle Busch +8
Christopher Bell +5
Tyler Reddick +3
Ross Chastain -3
Brad Keselowski -3
Ryan Blaney -6
Bubba Wallace -14
Larson, in addition to his victory in the Southern 500, has been in the mix every race this round, including a runner-up at Bristol.
But this is where we start to reach a bit of a log jam. If you already start to pencil both Byron and Truex in, while also start making a case for Hamlin and Larson, well, there’s your four. And that means you’re discounting the likes of Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain and Keselowski, who have all made final four appearances over the years.
Also consider that this next three-race round includes unpredictable wild cars at Talladega and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL after this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Anyone is a Truex in the first-round disaster away from their own elimination.
And full-circle, that’s the drama and appeal of this format — if the purists can stomach the notion.
Bye bye NASCAR dirt
The decision by NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports to return both Bristol Motor Speedway races to the concrete surface was met with applause from a majority of the industry and fanbase. But hopefully this isn’t the end of dirt racing for NASCAR and the Cup Series.
Hear me out.
Say what you will about whether Cup should race on dirt, or how all parties involved approached the logistics and technical elements of the racing product, but those races didn’t suck. That’s especially true for the two races contested at Dirt Bristol using the NextGen car.
No one is going to confuse the NextGen for a Dirt Late Model, but the platform was far more capable of racing on clay than the previous generation car did in 2021.
Listen, those races produced memorable moments, especially the finish to the 2022 race where Chase Briscoe wiped himself and Tyler Reddick out racing for the lead on the final lap, allowing Kyle Busch to score his last victory for Joe Gibbs Racing.
In an era where every short track or flat track race is dictated by track position, it was so refreshing to see Cup cars racing on a grip limited surface with the results entirely dictated by mechanical grip and who could drive their cars the best.
Isn’t that what we want out of the highest level of competition?
At the same time, this experiment meant losing two race weekends on the concrete surface, but that comes with some baggage too because this Cup car still isn’t the best on short tracks. While the 2023 Bristol Night Race was better than its predecessor, thanks to a heavier application of PJ1 on the bottom and a new right-side tire combination, it’s clear that the cars are still too equal and aerodynamically sensitive to produce Racin’ The Way It Ought‘a Be.
That’s the old Bristol Motor Speedway slogan, by the way, and one they are going to bring back next spring as part of a celebration meant to honor the more traditional style of racing at Thunder Valley.
Anyway, there is a place for dirt racing on the schedule, especially if that schedule includes a street course, road courses, superspeedways, intermediates and short tracks. The Cup Series has the most diverse schedule in professional motorsports and that is something worth celebrating and extending.
Hopefully in time, NASCAR and Tony Stewart can get back on the same page to make a Cup race at Eldora happen. After all, if the sanctioning body can revisit conversations with Montreal after how that relationship ended a decade ago, so could that one.
If not Eldora, Knoxville Raceway in Iowa is already the dirt equivalent to Martinsville and arguably a better overall facility than that. There are two purpose-built dirt tracks already operated by individuals in the industry in Tony Stewart and Spire Sports+Entertainment, respectively.
Let’s not give up on dirt, even if we’re giving up on the Bristol Dirt Race.
$40 million charter
Speaking of things traditionalists abhor alongside the playoffs and dirt, it was a big week for the charter market with Spire Racing reportedly buying the Live Fast Racing No. 78 ownership token for $40 million.
No doubt, everyone misses the days where anyone could build a Cup car and 50 entries would show up in the effort to race their way into the Daytona 500. Those days were gone long before the charter system was conceived, and nothing will bring that dynamic back.
Cup Series racing is too technical, too specialized, and too expensive.
That Spire Racing owners Jeff Dickerson and TJ Puchyr, alongside their new investors Gainbridge Financial, believe so much in the future of the Cup Series that it would invest $40 million to gain a team should inspire confidence from the fans too.
It’s also a sign that the race teams believe they are ultimately going to receive a better deal than the status quo from NASCAR after the next television rights agreement is finalized. All of this should inspire confidence and positivity from fans too.
Sure, it’s easy to say that millionaire asset transactions does nothing for them, but it’s a sign that NASCAR isn’t as dead as people like to dismissively posit in moments of frustration.
Also, with all due respect to Live Fast Racing, the industry now has one additional car that is truly trying to compete in exchange for one that wasn’t. At the same time, good for Live Fast owners BJ McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk for maximizing that asset.
All three will remain in the sport, whether it’s a part-time open entry for Live Fast or the BJ McLeod Motorsports Xfinity team, which stands to be more competitive as a result of this agreement.
Yes, the Cup Series is more exclusive and affluent than ever before, and that’s a stark contrast to the Winston Cup Series of old. There is a lot of work to be done to the NextGen car to make it more financially viable. But the pieces are in place to make owning a Cup Series team more viable, allowing them to make driving hires purely based on talent, and making them less reliant on sponsorship dollars.
These are all worthwhile goals, and Spire’s investment is at least a conviction that the industry has a pathway there.
The same can be said of Trackhouse Racing hiring Zane Smith and loaning him to Spire as part of that transaction. Smith is a highly rated prospect and one who gets his chance to race at the highest level because the likes of Dickerson, Puchyr and Justin Marks all believe in the long term projections.
And if you are a longtime fan, who misses the sensibilities of the Winston Cup Series, there’s always the current Xfinity Series product …
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.