Through the many incarnations of the NASCAR postseason, the playoff field has gradually grown from 10 drivers to 16. Is 16 too many, or is it fine the way it is?
Champions Should Be Good, Not Good Enough
For most of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams, the initial goal each year is to make the playoffs — as it should be for anyone competing in the series full time.
The problem here is that almost half of them make it.
So why is that so bad? First off, there’s not much exclusivity to the accomplishment anymore. You can make the postseason with a rather mediocre year.
Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of the worst season of his career. He has no wins, only two top-five finishes and has led just 29 laps. Following last week’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson essentially stated in his post-race comments that they are optimistic because his team ran in the top 10 late before fading to 16th at the checkered flag.
What kind of farce has this become when a seven-time champion is optimistic because he was able to keep up with the top quarter of the field and snuck into the next to last playoff spot?
He absolutely has no business being in championship contention. The playoff field should never have grown beyond 10 drivers. Even 10 seems to be a bit much, to be quite honest. No driver who has stood 10th in points after Labor Day has ever won a Cup title under the previous format. That’s because if you can’t put together a stronger “regular season,” you don’t deserve to win the title.
This all started in the mid-2000s when drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and other popular racers missed the cut for the postseason. NASCAR felt as if it would affect interest if the biggest names weren’t eligible for the championship. So the playoff field kept expanding until it was a near guarantee that all of the most notable drivers would qualify.
Whether that’s the case or not, it shouldn’t matter. The championship should go to the best driver each year — or at the very least, one of the best drivers.
The championship has become the focal point of the races rather than the race itself. Constant reminders of points as they run and current playoff standings have diluted the races to a mere afterthought. Drivers are constantly bombarded with questions about the playoffs and their outlook for the postseason.
Granted, the series title is the sport’s biggest prize. But it shouldn’t make winning races irrelevant, especially late in the year.
The “win and you’re in” method of eligibility is part of the problem as well. One victory shouldn’t open the door to the sport’s number one prize. I’d like to see the playoffs shortened to the final few races and only feature the top four or five drivers. There are a couple different ways to do the eligibility criteria, but that’s another story. The point is that the current system is way too inclusive.
Since the playoffs aren’t going away, we need a way to ensure that one of the best drivers every year ends up holding the big trophy — exactly the way it should be. -Frank Velat
The More The Merrier
The 16-driver playoff field is good the way it is.
NASCAR’s postseason has already changed too much in its 15-year existence. The last thing we need is yet another change.
My first option echoes a lot of fans’ sentiment: that we should lose the playoffs and go back to a full-season points battle. But as Frank pointed outk above, the playoffs aren’t going anywhere any time soon so let’s keep what we have for at least a few more years and get a bigger sample size of it.
The idea behind the current format was that the sport would get more competitive and, eventually, we would get to a point where a driver capable of winning races and competing for championships misses the playoffs. This wasn’t the case the first few years of this format, but now it is.
Last year, we had Joey Logano, a driver who has twice made the Championship Four, miss the cut. This year, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Jamie McMurray, Chris Buescher, AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne all failed to make it in — all drivers who have made it in before. Newman and McMurray both have teammates who made it in. Menard is driving a car that made it to the Round of 8 last season.
Also, this is the first season Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 didn’t make the playoffs since 2005. William Byron isn’t a bad driver — if it were truly an easy task to make the 16-field playoffs then he would have easily made it in. The same goes for Daniel Suarez.
People will write off many of the drivers I listed as not having a chance to win the title even if they made the playoffs, but NASCAR is a streaky sport. I didn’t think Tony Stewart had any shot at the championship in 2011 when he sucked all season and limped into the playoffs before winning five of the final 10 races. Nobody thought Brad Keselowski was a contender for this year’s title until the past two weeks.
I remember those 10-driver playoff years; they were horrendously boring. The biggest field opens up the chances for that Cinderella story, and the current elimination-style format provides drama every single playoff race.
A 10-driver elimination format wouldn’t work with 10 races. The Camping World Truck Series does eight drivers over seven races, and eliminating two drivers every three weeks is far lamer cutting four.
Anyone that loves NCAA Basketball’s March Madness, but hates this playoff format has no room to talk. March Madness lets in 68 teams now, many who weren’t even close to winning their conference, and people still love it.
NASCAR’s playoff grid isn’t that accepting. In fact, it’s more in line with other professional sports. 40 percent of the NASCAR drivers make the playoffs. The NFL lets in 37 percent of the teams, while the NBA lets in a whopping 53 percent. The NBA lets teams with losing records in. That would be like if a driver with more DNFs than top 10s made the NASCAR playoffs (which is honestly possible).
For as long as we have playoffs in NASCAR, the current format is the best one to use. Let’s not go tinkering around with it anytime soon. -Michael Massie
About the author
Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.
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