Did You Notice? … Only 31 drivers have started every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race this year? That means it’s easier to qualify for the NASCAR postseason right now than almost any stick-and-ball sport.
Let’s explain. To make the playoffs, a driver must start every regular season race unless they’re given a medical waiver. Slots are given to 16 drivers for either their position in points or winning a race, as long as they finish 30th or better in the season standings.
There are currently 31 drivers eligible under those rules. That means each of them has a 51.6 percent chance to make the postseason.
Let’s compare that percentage to the other major sports.
MLB: 10 of 30 playoff teams (33.3%)
NFL: 12 of 32 playoff teams (37.5%)
NHL: 16 of 31 playoff teams (51.6%)
NASCAR: 16 of 31 playoff teams (51.6%)
NBA: 16 of 30 playoff teams (53.3%)
I bring this ratio up because of how meaningless that percentage can make the regular season. While I think the current elimination format has its perks you can also earn a spot as early as February’s Daytona 500. Austin Dillon, who currently sits outside the top 16 in points virtually clinched the second he took the checkered flag in the season opener.
Especially in a year like this one, where the Kevin Harvick/Kyle Busch combo has combined for nine race wins. having 17+ winners is a virtual impossibility. Dillon (along with all five other drivers that have victories this year) could have their tickets punched as early as the July 1 race at Chicagoland.
“Well what about staying inside the top 30 in points?” you might be wondering. The fact there are only 31 eligible drivers virtually eliminates anyone from worrying about that scenario. Add in the few backmarker teams with little, if any chance to win and any driver who reaches Victory Lane is playoff bound.
For fans of those drivers, that means there are months of semi-meaningless races until the postseason starts. Sure, the Harvicks and Busches of the world will be gobbling up playoff points. But the middle-class surprises like Dillon know they can only compete so often against those big guns. Their focus for months will be testing for September so they put their best foot forward when it matters most.
That’s why I think, considering the length of the playoffs (10 weeks, 28 percent of the schedule) we might be better served by cutting back. Let’s look at what the postseason would look like right now if we did a seven-race playoff where the top 12 made it – not the top 16.
Here’s the list of drivers who would suddenly be on the outside looking in: Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Those are high-end names and, at least in Johnson’s case, championship-level expectations. This quartet would all be scrambling to knock off a new duo on the bubble: Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola.
Neither Blaney nor Almirola, who have had promising seasons, would be allowed to sit on their laurels. Each driver has had missed opportunities to cash in on Victory Lane and those mistakes would actually come with consequences. And what about Dillon? The worst performing of this year’s race winners? There would be no testing, just hard racing as chances are high NASCAR will still reach 12-13 individual winners.
And what about the racetracks? We don’t need to open the NASCAR playoffs in Las Vegas. Really, the racing isn’t good enough to justify the pomp and circumstance. Or if we do, switch out with Dover and keep it as this shortened postseason opener. And instead of losing the Charlotte roval, this year’s round one finale, we can switch that with Talladega. That would mean a restrictor plate race ends the regular season instead of making Russian Roulette out of a three-race playoff.
Again, I think part of fixing what ails NASCAR involves increasing the incentives to race hard. If your postseason bid is all but assured (and for many of the sport’s top drivers, it already is) you’re subconsciously on cruise control from now until September.
In this case, NASCAR, less is more. Eliminate a round of the playoffs in 2019, 2020 or whenever they can and that could be the perfect fix for this postseason system.
Did You Notice? … The fact people were obsessed with the real debris caution at Pocono is because there hasn’t been any? 14 races into the 2018 season, just five debris cautions have been called. That’s an average of 0.36 per race, by far the lowest in NASCAR’s playoff era.
Compare that to 2016, the last year before the stage racing format. The first 14 races brought 21 debris cautions, a 320 percent increase over what we’re seeing this year. There was “debris” found in every race but one (Martinsville) while one event had four of them.
I don’t think we’re suddenly having a light year with metal falling off cars, right? It’s clear NASCAR has changed its officiating policy for debris in light of the stage racing format. (I.E. – planned cautions). There’s no need to artificially bunch up the field at any given time anymore when we’re guaranteed two stage breaks a race.
Look, everyone involved in the sport from fans, teams and drivers appreciate the races naturally playing out. I’m fascinated by this statistic simply because it appears to prove what people suspected all along for years. At best, you could say NASCAR was more liberal in bunching up the field for debris when they know the race could go green for 500 miles.
Will that sanctioning body ever admit it? No, never. But the numbers don’t lie.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Sure, I get it. Kyle Busch failing post-race inspection for being too high is the type of penalty where everyone loses. I agree it’s a detriment for Busch, not an advantage, and the rules shouldn’t punish you for a violation that kills speed on your racecar. But the words “No. 18 car illegal, L1 violation” drive the fanbase absolutely crazy. The bottom line is as the rules were written, the car wasn’t legal, and this Cup driver came and kicked butt in a lower series with it. We’ve seen too much of this penalty stuff this year, and it’s not a good look for the sport. They say, teams, drivers and NASCAR officials are communicating better than ever? Great. So let’s get in a room and fix this problem so the penalty report doesn’t roll out a list of cheaters every week.
- Johnson’s No. 48 team continues to slowly pick up the pace. But who would have guessed it would take until Pocono(?!) for this team to lead its first laps of the season? Those two laps led on pit strategy may be meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a small step forward for Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and Co. Now, the next three tracks for Johnson are crucial. He’s only got two career wins at Michigan International Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway, a trio of tracks that produced zero top-five finishes for him in 2017. But if Johnson can make it through unscathed, that should lock up a playoff bid in case the 42-year-old does the unthinkable and goes winless during the regular season.
- Johnson remains 50 points in front of Alex Bowman, the first driver on the outside looking in after Pocono. Bowman’s bad luck has quietly allowed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to sneak by him for the final spot. Also in the mix? Erik Jones, just 12 points ahead of Bowman after his Pocono crash. Integral to all this jockeying for position is Jones’ replacement, Matt Kenseth, who started alongside Jones at Pocono. Since Kenseth joined Roush Fenway Racing last month, Stenhouse has run no worse than 14th while the No. 6 team has gotten better every week. The veteran’s presence, while not showing on track just yet (although 13th at Pocono is pretty good), may be indirectly getting the No. 17 Ford over the postseason hump.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.