Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Chicagoland this weekend (Sept. 17) was comfortable, to say the least.
Now that the playoffs have begun, the logical question has arisen as to whether he can conceivably be beaten by anyone without Truex himself making a mistake. Furthermore, if he is beaten, what are the implications of that in such a complicated playoffs ruleset?
The wider implications of these questions reflect a feeling that NASCAR may be becoming too contrived for viewers to keep up, and parity between those at the front of the grid and those at the back may not be sufficient for everyone to compete.
NASCAR needs to keep evolving and changing to retain its dwindling viewership, and this year’s playoff formula does feel like a bit of an experiment.
If this season ends with some real fireworks, expect this format to remain but it doesn’t seem likely that NASCAR will stick with this one for too many seasons longer.
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Q: Does anybody really stand a chance of beating Truex this season? – Frank Burke, Wichita, KS
It doesn’t seem so likely that Truex will take much of a beating up to the race at Homestead, Miami (Nov. 19). He holds 58 playoff points right now with five race wins and a staggering 18 stage wins. That’s six more stage wins than Kyle Busch, his closest competitor at the moment.
Truex somehow had a 7.1 sec lead over Chase Elliott at the checkered flag of the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. And that was after a speeding penalty on pit road set him back in stage one and a loose wheel forced him to pit again in before the stage two restart.
The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing driver showed frightening pace throughout and it was clear that he was going to win around halfway into that 267 lap race.
However, Busch dominated the first stage, and nobody could catch him, as the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota enjoyed a lead of seven seconds at one point. Without Busch’s own pit road trouble, he might well have challenged Truex in stage three.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports’ racer Elliott also showed some pace. Ignoring the tenuous suggestions that his team was cheating at Chicagoland with tape on the rear wing of his Chevrolet sparked by somebody on Reddit, HMS always gets into gear when the playoffs come around.
Ruling Jimmie Johnson out of an eighth championship would not be sensible, is all.
— r/NASCAR on Reddit (@NASCARonReddit) September 19, 2017
So yes, while Truex holds such a huge playoff point lead over Kyle Larson (another name to throw into the hat as a challenger due to his stunning early-season form), come Homestead none of those points will matter and the championship decider will be delicately balanced.
One small mistake from Truex at Miami, which isn’t out of the question, could make this rich run of form redundant.
Q. Are playoff points a fair way to decide who wins the championship? The whole process seems ridiculous and hard to understand. – Matt B., London, UK
NASCAR loves changing how its postseason format works and this is this fifth major format change to have been implemented since the playoffs were implemented in 2004.
It’s hard enough to remember not to call this part of the season the Chase, and this year NASCAR decided to add another points table into the mix, with stage racing, to make every lap of every race count.
While there have been a few dead rubbers this season – particularly this race at Chicagoland and the race at Kentucky in July (also dominated by Truex) – most of the stages are hotly contested and strategy calls are made to maximize playoff points rather than just increasing the driver’s chance of a race win.
Playoff points will definitely decide who goes into the next round, as only wins provide a guaranteed way to progress. Therefore, most of the drivers who make it into the round of 12 will need to bank playoff points at New Hampshire and Dover before they’re cut off.
That seems fair, and it breeds good competition throughout the season, but the whole system does seem immensely complicated.
Having been brought up on Formula 1, where the winner gets 25 points; second place gets 18; third 15 and so on all the way down to 10th place where that driver gets one point, NASCAR’s reliance on lengthy points tables to score drivers three times per race does seem ridiculous.
It’s important to remember that points have been pretty straightforward in NASCAR over the regular season and when the playoffs started, those drivers who made their way into the playoffs have had their totals reset to 2000, with playoff points and bonus points added to that baseline total of 2000.
More important is the fact that a win matters above all, and points don’t matter when the title decider takes place at Homestead.
While NASCAR’s approach to changing things seems chaotic, this sport needs to do so because viewership has declined steadily for a while now, and seeing a sport change so willingly is refreshing.
Hopefully, viewers aren’t being scared away by these constant rule changes and contrivances, but TV ratings aren’t proving otherwise right now. Thankfully, I’m not the person tasked with making a 36-race season remain competitive and compelling throughout.
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