As NASCAR’s postseason playoffs roar into Kansas Speedway this week for an elimination race in the Monster Energy Cup playoffs on Sunday, one question persists.
Is this the best way to determine a Cup championship?
First came The Chase, introduced in 2004. It replaced 65 years of season-long points accumulation to crown a champion with a format in which the Top 10 drivers after 26 races comprised a playoff field for the final 10 races. Whoever compiled the most points in those races won the title.
Then, the Win and You’re In was implemented in 2014, assuring drivers who won a regular-season race a spot in a 16-driver, 10-race playoff. Four drivers would be eliminated from contention every three weeks leading to a showdown between four competitors in the finale at Homestead.
And in 2017, NASCAR added yet another wrinkle to the Win and You’re In by inserting stage racing within each race. Drivers could add points to their ledgers by winning and placing in the top 10 in three pre-determined segments of each race.
“It’s definitely harder,” 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr., said of the current format. “It’s really, really difficult to put together all those races in high-pressure situations. If you have a bad one, it could possibly take you out of an opportunity at a championship. In 2016, we felt like we were capable and had a great season and we lost an engine at Talladega early and we found ourselves like two points from advancing.
“The old format with points racing for the whole season is tough as well because you have to be consistent, but you know if you have one bad race somewhere, it’s not the end of the world. The playoffs are pretty crazy.”
The latest wrinkle of stage points and playoff points was installed in order to give race teams incentive for the rest of the season once they qualified for the postseason. Otherwise, once they won a race, teams could prioritize working on their setups and strategies for the playoffs instead of competing for more wins.
Now, every race position matters, every week.
“The current format makes it to where you have to earn bonus points in the regular season and then those bonus points carry with you through the playoffs. So it actually hurts the effort of the playoff atmosphere, in my mind,” said Kurt Busch, who won the first Chase championship in 2004 but was eliminated in the first round this year.
“Whereas, when we had a system of 10 weeks straight, that was basically a clean slate for everybody and then you start earning points from there and showcase your skills over a 10-week run. Now, you have those bonus points and they get lumped together with a three-race stretch.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing teams of Truex and 2015 champion Kyle Busch have been successful in stockpiling stage points that have provided some protection in the event of a poor finish in a playoff race.
“It’s kind of an insurance policy,” said Busch, who finished 19th at Talladega Monday but still has enough playoff points to stay in the top five, 41 points ahead of the cutoff line to the Round of 8. “We all pay for insurance to hopefully never have to use it, but it’s there just in case.
“We’ve done a great job of being able to build those points up throughout the regular season, and it’s nice to be able to have that point structure in place to kind of give you the opportunity to have your early-season success help you through the postseason. I think it’s the most fair structure that we’ve had through the playoff era.”
NASCAR made these tweaks to the playoffs to stir fan interest and create “game-seven drama” enjoyed by other sports, and Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion, believes it’s been successful.
“You have to evolve, and in the end, we are in the entertainment business, and we have to have people watching in order to put sponsors on the car and butts in the seats,” Harvick said. “So in order to keep up with the times, you had to keep up with what people think is exciting and I think the format is exciting.
“Obviously, from a competitor’s standpoint, it’s very intense and it’s hard to get to the final four, and so for us it’s really once you get in the playoffs it’s more of a survive-and-advance mentality. However you do that, whether it looks good on paper or not, you just have to get to the next round, and that’s much different than collecting as many points as you can and try to get to the end of the year as it was previously.”
That’s not to say the current format is permanent, especially with NASCAR preparing to overhaul its schedule in 2021.
“I feel like three races in one little lump is too short and the consequences are too high,” Kurt Busch said. “You have an O-ring go out in an engine, and you’re knocked out. Things can be adjusted possibly in the future, where a playoff run in NASCAR might just be five weeks straight and it could be a challenge of five different style tracks.”
Emporia’s Clint Bowyer, who is in 11th place, 27 points behind the cut line and almost certainly must win his first race of the season Sunday to advance to the Round of 8, wouldn’t change a thing.
“Those summer months are long, grueling and they drag on,” Bowyer said. “You needed a wakeup call and shot in the arm. For me, that is the playoffs. New purpose. You are always racing for that win on any given Sunday, and that championship all year long is in the back of your mind.
“Now, it is real. I like this new format – three-races, three-races, three-races, baby! It isn’t 10 … You have to survive three races. Win one of these three and you are automatically on to the next round. … It is a good thing for me.”