The NASCAR Playoffs Are a Necessary Evil


Did you hear the postseason is coming up? No, not MLB’s, as every team still has circa 50 games left to play. It’s possible you could make a case for the Little League World Series, but no need to put additional pressure on those kids.

Thus, the closest postseason on the horizon has to be NASCAR’s playoffs. On the premier Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit, to be precise. Three races (starting with Saturday’s event at Bristol Motor Speedway) and an August 24-25 bye weekend remain on the regular season docket, leaving a trio of chances for drivers to work their way into the 16-driver playoff field. Nine drivers have secured their spot via race victories. The last pair in and the first couple are separated by 22 points.

Formerly known as the Chase for the Nextel/Sprint Cup (under the series’ days of cellular sponsorship), the playoff format has undergone numerous changes but has kept a consistent sense of excitement since its 2004 inception. The latest wrinkle, introduced in 2014, creates the closest thing auto racing can have to a “Game 7”. With the ten-race format eliminating four drivers every three events, the last race (typically held in Miami) features four drivers in a winner take all finale. The playoff system has also taken over the organization’s “minor leagues”, the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Yet, NASCAR fans have generally reacted negatively toward a playoff system.

Much like baseball, auto racing is generally one where tradition rules above all.

The slightest attempt at tweaking rules or introducing something, or even someone, new is generally frowned upon or complained about. Social media allows the detractors to immediately fire off their vitriol. Frequent targets involve the numerous aero packages used on the cars, an influx of young talent taking over the sport, and Kyle Busch and his inflated win total due to running all three NASCAR levels.

All those topics and more are certainly debatable. But the playoff’s standing is not. It’s here to stay. It’s necessary. It’s…vital.

The common criticism behind a NASCAR playoff is the belief that it punishes a driver for consistently dominating the full 36-race season. Such a caveat denied Jeff Gordon a spot at sterling racing history. Already regarded as one of the greatest drivers of all time, Gordon won four Cup Series titles under the season-long accumulation. Had NASCAR kept that format going, he would’ve won three more, tying him with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most all-time.

Instead, it was Gordon’s teammate and protege, Jimmie Johnson, that played the playoff system to his favor. Each of Johnson’s seven titles have come in the postseason era, energized by sheer domination over the final decalogue. For example, Johnson’s most recent championship run (2016) began with just 10 top ten finishes obtained during the regular season. Three wins later, including one in the finale, Johnson became the third “Mr. Seven-Time”.

A similar outcry arose during Kyle Busch’s march to his only Cup Series title to date. Missing the first 11 races of 2015 due to injury, Busch was allowed to compete for the Cup under the conditions he won a race and entered the top 30 in points. He and his No. 18 team accomplished both. Busch took home four wins and reached 27th to qualify before the strong final stretch….but fans nonetheless claimed he didn’t rightfully earn the title.

Setting aside the Busch debate (another healthy, fair topic), the playoff argument remains unchanged: this is how NASCAR stays alive and relevant.

Yes, Gordon, and others, have perhaps been denied a title. But when it happens in other sports, it barely raises a peep. The same standard should be applied for NASCAR.

Just ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners. The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. The 2007-08 New England Patriots. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.

These squads bring a combined 267 regular season wins to the table (Only 16 for New England, but they contributed zero losses). Yet, not a single one bears a championship banner. Nobody demonizes the eventual champions as illegitimate or phony. They’re just as respected and their rise against all odds while the stakes were never bigger are often praised.

Perhaps the strongest argument for a playoff can be found in the last time NASCAR didn’t have one. 2003 was the final under the historic Winston Cup Series banner and a time of change. The final Winston Cup champion was Matt Kenseth, who failed to place first over the season’s final 33 races. In fact, Kenseth only led 354 laps on the season, less than 100 per race.

There was nothing fraudulent about Kenseth’s title. On that issue, there is zero debate. General consistency (25 top tens and an average finish of 10.2) while others fell to bad luck or carelessness allowed him to easily coast to his first title.

To put it in perspective, Kenseth had two late disasters in October (back-to-back finishes of 33rd and 36th). He still emerged 259 points ahead of his closest competitor.

Essentially, Kenseth had that season’s title wrapped up by July’s visit to Daytona.

When NASCAR goes head-to-head with football, baseball playoffs, and the opening of basketball and hockey’s seasons, anything must be done to gain a competitive edge. A cinematic equivalent would be showing (SPOILERS) Iron Man’s snap on posters for Avengers: Endgame at the local multiplex next to more ambiguous promotion for John Wick: Chapter 3. Sure, it’s exciting, but wouldn’t you want the ending to be a bit more mysterious? NASCAR ratings have likewise been in decline for several seasons. Manufactured drama, which has worked for decades when it comes to reality TV, is contrived, but draws the eyeballs back.

No, the playoff is not infallible. Far too many drivers, for example, are admitted entry. A 16-driver field feels enormous compared to the original’s 10 (postseason overcrowding remains a problem in the NBA and NHL editions as well).

But, no playoff, no NASCAR. If excitement is a so-called price to pay for a sport’s continued livelihood…so be it.