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Evaluating NASCAR’s controversial playoff format

NASCAR's playoff format has been a hot topic of discussion since its implementation in 2014. Here's a deep dive into the system with possible changes.

NASCAR: Xfinity Series Playoff Race
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since NASCAR introduced the new playoff format in 2014, it has been controversial among fans of the sport due to its integrity and method to determine a champion for each series. However, this year it proved to work quite well.

Let’s take a deep dive into NASCAR’s playoff format.

What NASCAR has right in the playoff format

NASCAR: Xfinity Series Playoff Race
Oct 2, 2021; Talladega, AL, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers race at Talladega Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR has perfected a few things with the playoff format. One of them is the number of drivers. Sixteen spots present an opportunity for a driver to lock themselves into the playoffs with a win while others can lock in on points.

It used to be a playoff of 12 drivers, but it was moved to 16 when the sport introduced the new system in 2014. It’s not the only thing perfected, but making any changes to this seems unnecessary.

Another good idea with the format revolves around the elimination system. It is definitely a good idea to eliminate drivers by a few races per round. The idea of having this happen is good, but the execution of this is not.

It has some good potential and creates needed drama within the playoffs that wasn’t present before its conception. However, the downside of this will also be explained in the section below.

The final brilliant idea is the playoff points that drivers carry from round to round. NASCAR has found a way to make the regular season truly matter, but there are some flaws in the system that relate to the transfers.

The right ideas are definitely present for the current format to reach its fullest potential, but there is needed work to make this a reality.

What NASCAR has wrong in the playoff format

NASCAR: Cup Series Championship
Nov 7, 2021; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (5) during Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

There are many things to dislike about the current playoff format and every single one of them will be discussed with changes in the section below. First off, the regular season does matter due to the playoff points, but there’s not enough incentive to be the champion.

The regular-season champion receives 15 playoff points which is five more than second place with 10 points. According to many people, being the leader in points after a 26-race mini-season should not result in a mere five points more than second place.

Another flaw in the system is how playoff points are transferred. They work well for the first three rounds, but why shouldn’t they transfer to the final round? It completely discredits the entire season of work for race teams.

There can easily be changes to this idea that immediately provides more fairness moving forward. However, it means everything else that is wrong needs to be fixed in the correct manner too.

The way a champion is decided remains the biggest flaw in this current system. Once you get to the championship race, the 35 previous races do not matter at all and it ruins the value of a championship overall.

For example, let’s say Formula 1 used the exact same format. There’s a possibility that Sergio Perez could win the championship over Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Not a single person in the community would think Perez deserves to win it.

The same principle applies to NASCAR. Why should the fourth-best driver in points have an opportunity to win a race or two, be less consistent, and still have the ability to win a championship? It doesn’t make too much sense on the surface.

What changes could NASCAR make to remedy these issues? Find out below.

Possible changes to NASCAR’s playoff format

NASCAR: Bank of America ROVAL 400
Oct 10, 2021; Concord, North Carolina, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (5) does a victory burnout during the Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The first change that is needed revolves around the regular-season championship. If a driver is leading the points after a 26-race regular season, they should be rewarded in one of two ways.

One is an automatic lock into the final round as a reward for their hard work during the season and another is two byes that automatically lock the driver into the Round of 8. Both ideas still involve 15 playoff points.

For example, Kyle Larson faced the possibility of being eliminated in the Round of 12 at Charlotte ROVAL when the car started to have voltage issues. There should be no scenario where the regular-season champion could be eliminated in the first half of the playoffs.

This creates more of an incentive to win the regular-season championship and rewards consistency over a 26-race span instead of a six-race span to start the playoffs.

Another change could be the way playoff points are transferred. No matter what happens with the final round of the playoffs, the points gained from the entire season should still matter. If that means we know the champion before the final round, that’s how it should be.

There are many ideas for changing the championship round, but all of them include this idea since the entire season needs to matter. No other racing series has a format where the entire season comes down to one race.

The championship round still remains to be the biggest flaw in the entire system. For example, Larson entered Phoenix with nine wins, the most laps led in a 36-race season, and the most consistency all year.

If Chase Elliott beat him with zero oval wins and less consistency, what does that tell us about the system? There’s no argument as to why Elliott should be the champion despite having a good season that deserves a top-5 position in points.

There are a few ways to fix this round. One is to keep the one-race finale but transfer playoff points to the final round, as described above. This makes the regular season matter and the deserving champion doesn’t need to come home victorious in a winner-takes-all race.

Another idea is to change the championship round to two races. If they changed the format to 3-3-2-2 and transfer playoff points, the final round will be the same as all the other rounds, reward consistency throughout the year, and solve the one-race issue.

The integrity of the playoff system would be much better if a system like this came to light. There would be no questions with integrity and it would provide ample entertainment as well.

NASCAR’s playoff format moving forward

NASCAR: Camping World Truck Series Lucus Oil 150 Championship
Nov 5, 2021; Avondale, AZ, USA; Camping World Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes celebrates after clinching the 2021 Truck Series championship following the Lucus Oil 150 Championship race at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In all likelihood, none of the changes listed above will ever cross paths with reality and that’s as expected. The entertainment value is more important and that’s what the people in charge strive to give the fans.

However, there have been and will be many occasions when you will see controversy due to something that happens with the dominant driver in the system. Fans will be upset and it becomes a product of the format.

Throughout the entire year, the idea of comparing stick-and-ball sports to NASCAR is frowned upon by many but once the playoffs start, there will be people defending the format due to its similarities to other sports, such as the NFL.

NASCAR is not like other sports in America. It’s not the same as the NFL and it shouldn’t be treated in that way. In the glory days with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Jeff Gordon, they raced through the entire season and there was enough drama.

With a new era of NASCAR emerging due to the NextGen car, maybe we will see some adjustments to the current system. This season provided incredible champions with Ben Rhodes, Daniel Hemric, and Larson taking home the hardware.

However, not every year will be like the 2021 season and that should raise concerns. The idea of the system is amazing, but one day, its current flaws could create a very bad look for NASCAR that needs to be avoided.