It is hard to believe that NASCAR’s postseason championship format has gone through five different versions in 15 seasons. The latest revision involved last year’s introduction of playoff points that drivers can earn throughout the season and carry with them through the different rounds of the postseason. Playoff points were a positive change, but the overall elimination-style framework has been highly problematic for NASCAR ever since its introduction in 2014.
NASCAR will, in all likelihood, spend the next year or two extolling the virtues of the current championship system, painting it as the best if its kind in motorsports, only to turn around and revise it once more. Remember, no single version of the playoffs has lasted more than four years.
So, when the sanctioning body does decide that it is time to make a change, it is imperative that it cuts down the number of drivers that qualify for the playoffs. Letting 16 teams compete in the postseason was always too generous, but if NASCAR is going to move forward with the charter system and a “full” field of 36 cars, the playoffs will inevitably include too many drivers who have not proven their worth as championship contenders within one season.
The lenient requirements for making the postseason were bad enough when NASCAR had 43-car fields. The rules allowed, as they still do, for any driver inside the top 30 in points with a win to get precedence for playoff seeding. Since NASCAR’s Cup Series settled on a 36 race schedule in 2001, there has never been a case where 16 different drivers won during the first 26 races. Some of those years in the early 2000s did eventually produce more than 16 winners, but it took all season to get there.
These days in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, one win is almost a guarantee that a driver will be in the playoffs. As a result, the 2014 postseason included drivers like Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger. Both had won a race during the regular season, but after 26 races, they were outside the top 20 in overall points. Almirola’s Daytona victory was one of only two top fives he earned all season. And while Allmendinger prevailed in a hard-fought battle at Watkins Glen, that win broke a string of 11 races in which he finished no better than 18th. Both drivers had well-deserved wins in 2014, but the Nos. 43 and 47 teams were clearly not prepared to race with NASCAR’s best in a championship battle, and both got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
The 2015 Chase presented its own series of problems. Kyle Busch won the title and performed quite well in the races he ran. The trouble was that he missed 11 races at the beginning of the season due to an injury sustained in an XFINITY Series race at Daytona. NASCAR was quick to give Busch a medical waiver and affirm his playoff eligibility, as long as he could win and reach the top 30 in points, which he did rather easily.
If NASCAR had not been so quick to take responsibility for Busch’s injuries or set the bar so low for everyone’s playoff eligibility, he would not have won the title. To be fair, Busch stepped up and performed at a very high level during the postseason when it mattered most and earned his championship once he was physically able to race. However, NASCAR’s apathetic attitude toward Busch missing almost half of the regular season still does not sit well with some fans, nor should it.
At the other end of the playoff grid that year were drivers like Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. They both failed to win and had only two top fives apiece. Bowyer at least had 12 top 10s to Menard’s five, but it was pretty clear that neither of them was championship caliber. The only reason they were in the playoffs was to fill NASCAR’s quota of 16 drivers.
Following the reduction of MENCS field sizes, the problem of too many drivers in the postseason has been worse in the last few years. The playoffs still get drivers who either enter because of a single victory without doing much of anything else all year (Chris Buescher in 2016, Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon in 2017) or drivers who missed a significant chunk of the regular season (Tony Stewart in 2016). Yet thanks to the charter system, MENCS fields have gotten smaller, meaning that there are less full-time teams and that making the postseason is even easier.
When NASCAR redefined a full field as the 36 chartered teams, the sanctioning body probably assumed that all chartered teams would have a full-time driver in order to be playoff-eligible. That has not been the case. In 2016, there were a total of 30 drivers who competed in all 36 races. That number does not include drivers like Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt DiBenedetto and Michael Annett who each competed for chartered teams but missed at least one race due to injury.
Regan Smith also missed a single race that year while on baby watch. Go FAS Racing’s No. 32 and Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95, on the other hand, went into the season with charters but planning to use multiple drivers.
In 2017, the number of drivers with 36 starts bumped up to 32, not including Almirola who missed races with a chartered team due to injury. Yet the number of chartered teams who used split driver lineups increased as well. Jeffrey Earnhardt drove the vast majority of races for Joe Falk’s No. 33 team, while Boris Said took over for the road course races. Premium Motorsports fielded one chartered car primarily for Reed Sorenson, but eight other drivers raced the car at least once. Finally, five different drivers split BK Racing’s No. 23 car.
So far in 2018, there are 32 drivers who have competed in the first six races, but there is even more uncertainty among the back-marker charter teams. Tri-Star Motorsports went into the season intending for Corey LaJoie and Cole Whitt to split driving duties for the No. 72 car. Rick Ware’s No. 51 team has a charter but has used four different drivers thus far. Danica Patrick raced with Premium Motorsports in the Daytona 500 and has since turned the car over to XFINITY regular Ross Chastain. Chastain, however, is not eligible for MENCS points, so it remains to be seen if he will continue with Premium for the rest of the season.
More recently, Jeffrey Earnhardt and StarCom Racing parted ways after running the full season together. Landon Cassill drove the car at Martinsville Speedway and will return at least for Texas Motor Speedway next week, but the team’s driver lineup beyond that is in doubt. Gray Gaulding and BK Racing have made it to the track every week so far, but the team’s bankruptcy proceedings resulted in owner Ron Devine losing financial control of the organization this past week. What happens next with BK Racing is anyone’s guess.
If BK Racing goes under, there would only be 31 full-time driver and team combinations. That means that at least half of the full-time MENCS field would qualify for the playoffs, and that is ridiculous. Even before 2014, NASCAR would be hard-pressed to prove that the Cup Series included 16 championship caliber teams at any time during the postseason era. Now, with shrinking fields and even chartered teams putting together patchwork driver and sponsorship lineups, the postseason field is sure to include cars that are only there to take up space and have no legitimate claim to being able to race for a championship.
If NASCAR is insistent on keeping a postseason format, then it must go back to the proportions of the very first iteration of the Chase. From 2004 to 2006, the Cup Series had about 30-35 full-time teams, but only 10 made the postseason, which was plenty. Expanding the Chase in subsequent years was a knee-jerk reaction to drivers like Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt and Stewart getting left out of the postseason. If the playoffs were really as great as NASCAR makes them out to be, then they should be able to attract fans on their own merit, not because of who is competing in them.
Having such a bloated playoff field is just part of how the elimination-style postseason undermines the very purpose that drove NASCAR’s founding in the first place – the establishment of a system to determine a yearly, indisputable, stock car racing champion in the United States. Given the ever-present discussions among fans about each year’s would-be champion under a year-long format, and the new yearly recognition of a regular season champion, have NASCAR’s playoffs taken the sport too far away from its original mission? You be the judge.