NASCAR’s playoff format has been controversial since its inception in 2004. Love it or hate it, the new Chase has done a tremendous job at attracting a younger generation and providing a level of excitement that could go unseen amidst a dominant season by one driver.
However, tradition is still important in a sport with a large fan base consisting of people 50 years of age and older. While tradition might not be as important for young fans, who largely just want to see something exciting happen, it is still important to drivers and teams.
But with a playoff format, most sports usually put an emphasis on the regular season champion of either a division or conference. It’s pretty much common sense. Be the best during the regular season, why not have at least a bye during the first portion of the playoffs?
In NASCAR, since the Chase began in a progressive move by NASCAR executives, there has never been a reward for the regular season champion. It is a flaw that has been discussed by fans thoroughly and passionately. Arguably, it could have been the difference maker in several key championship battles over the past 11 seasons of 10-race playoffs in NASCAR.
Q: Jeff Gordon spoke about the regular season points leader being rewarded during the pre-race broadcast. Should that happen, and if so, what should the reward be? – James L., Memphis
A: Gordon’s point is absolutely important to catch the eye of keen sports fans. If you look at the NFL, the NFC and AFC (the two conferences in the NFL) regular season champions have a first-round bye. While they do not play in the first round of the playoffs, it provides extra rest time prior to round two.
Giving a first-round bye in NASCAR would be difficult, but it is certainly doable.
A perfect scenario would be having the regular season champion — with or without a win to lock into the Chase — have a pass for the first two rounds. That leaves that driver six races to try out different things with less pressure on their shoulders heading into the final four events of the season.
With a two-round bye, the regular season champion will be relaxed heading into the Chase, something that could be both a positive and a negative. The positive side of it is that the team will be trying setups contrasting that of their teammates, making the most out of those six races in preparation for the Round of 8.
Last year’s regular season champion, Kevin Harvick, narrowly made it to the Round of 12 in the Chase. Finishing 42nd at Chicagoland Speedway and 21st at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he sat 23 points behind the 12th-place cutoff. However, in a must-win situation, he earned a victory at Dover International Speedway during the final contest of the Round of 16, leading 355 of 400 laps en route to a triumph.
Harvick went on to narrowly make it into the Round of 8 in the Chase. With a runner-up finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it appeared as if he’d ease into the next portion of the playoffs. Then after back-to-back finishes outside of the top 15, he held on to
advance to the penultimate round of the playoffs.
Did it mean anything for Gordon to rack up three wins, eight top fives, 17 top 10s through the first 26 races? Evidently, the only item on the checklist that mattered was his first victory of the year at Kansas Speedway. After that, all that mattered was staying in the top 30 in the standings, something easily feasible for one of the sport’s most dominant drivers on the year.
Gordon sat seventh in the standings after Loudon, a mere 15 points ahead of the cutoff for the Round of 12. Once a pair of runner-up results at Charlotte (Round of 12) and Martinsville Speedway (Round of 8), he appeared to be headed to Homestead-Miami Speedway to compete for a title.
But that wasn’t the case.
Gordon missed the final round of the Chase that year. He ended the season sixth in points in a year featuring 1,083 laps led, along with a series-best average finish of 10.4 and 23 top 10s.
One can’t help but think what would have happened to Gordon had he received a bye for the first round of the Chase that year. Would things have been different? Probably not. However, it is something that sits in the back of one’s mind while evaluating NASCAR’s current Chase format.
In the midst of Jimmie Johnson’s streak of five straight Sprint Cup titles, he never led the regular season standings come Richmond in September. He was close on multiple occasions, including being on top of the standings for 23 of the first 26 races during the 2006 season. But that year, he lost the points lead to Matt Kenseth, the only driver within 333 points of Johnson after the penultimate race at Fontana before the cutoff.
While the Chase format can be questioned, there is no argument that NASCAR has done a fantastic job at appealing to a younger generation. The current Chase is wild, featuring heart-warming moments, such as Earnhardt, Jr. hugging Jamie McMurray at Dover last October after an amazing on-track battle to determine who advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
The Chase has even caused drivers to get angry at each other, creating rivalries for the first time in years. When Matt Kenseth attacked Brad Keselowski at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2014, it made the highlight reel across America.
Let’s face it: That would certainly not have happened with the lackluster original format of racking up the points after 36 races.
As NASCAR continuously looks to improve the Chase, it’s not the format that needs to be changed this time. Instead, it’s giving the regular season champion what they deserve, and that’s at least a bye for the first round of the Chase, still (obviously) having to compete in those three events.