Home / Cup Series / Fire on Fridays: It’s Time to Shrink the NASCAR Playoff Field
(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Fire on Fridays: It’s Time to Shrink the NASCAR Playoff Field

When NASCAR opted to go to a playoff system following Matt Kenseth’s 2003 title-winning season, there was mixed reaction. His one-win season, dubbed by some as “The Matt Kenseth Rule,” is a far cry from the win-and-you’re-in format we’ve had for the past few seasons.

The current format is the fifth iteration of the playoff system since it was introduced in 2004. The number of contenders has grown from 10 at the start of the playoff era, to 12, to 16, where it currently stands.

But when’s the last time a Cup champion came from the back half of the playoff field?

When’s the last time we had 16 winners in a regular season lasting 26 races?

What’s the harm in shrinking the playoff field by two, maybe four drivers?

Let’s be honest: is Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Paul Menard or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a threat for the championship? I think we know the answer to that.

Even so, have Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson or Erik Jones shown any inkling of contending for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

On the contrary, once the playoffs begin, anything is on the table. But again, we haven’t really seen that saying come to fruition.

Downsizing the playoff field would make a spot more coveted and put even more emphasis on winning a race in the regular season. What’s the harm in (wait for it) a driver winning a race in the regular season and not making the postseason?

If anything, it would increase the intensity of on track action due to the limited capacity of the playoff field. Eliminating four unnecessary slots who were never going to be championship contenders is not a harmful move.

It would force more consistency throughout the first races, something that has faded away in recent years, and raise the overall standards and barrier of entry to the sport’s ultimate stage where the best of the best compete for the ultimate prize.

The consistency factor would also please some of the “old school” fans and bring back some nostalgia and/or tradition, and that never hurt nobody either.

In many cases, I’m a firm believer of less is more. This goes along with that sentiment, and it’d wind up being for the best.

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About Davey Segal

Davey Segal
Davey serves an editor for the site and heads Frontstretch in 60, Fire on Friday's and The Frontstretch Awards. He recently graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor's degree in sports journalism and is originally from Rockville, Md. He has an extreme passion for sports and has been following the sport of NASCAR since 2002, when he attended his first race at Dover. He also is a reporter for NASCAR Home Tracks covering the K&N Pro Series.

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23 comments

  1. Avatar

    Hats off to Brian Vickers. He is married
    to one of Jeffrey Epstein’s “recruiters.”
    No wonder he got sick.

  2. Avatar

    Nascar wants a full field of cars each week. They also want to reward a ten race winner a special prize. Instead of doing it at the end of the season, why not use a ping pong ball lottery during speedweek at Daytona to pick the ten races for their special prize. The driver with the best average finish of those ten gets the prize.

  3. Avatar

    I’m with those who say eliminate it. I can sit here and lay out all the reasons why I believe it should be eliminated but I will limit it to one simple reason: it is a reflection of the Brian France era; ‘nuff said.

  4. Avatar

    For all you attention-span challenged know it alls just lower it to three and run a three-lap shootout on a deserted road in Alabama.

    Jeez, it is a business and that takes money. In order to generate the revenue it takes to make this work, you need 16 cars. How many teams make the hockey, NFL, or NBA playoffs? North Carolina High Schools have a 64-team draw in 1-A and there are teams with 3-8 records in it because they need the money to make the top sustainable.

    It works the way it is now.

    • Avatar

      Please explain further why 16 cars are needed? What would happen if there were only 10?
      You make it sound like the entire organization would collapse. Somehow I doubt that would be the case. Your premise is suspect.

      • Avatar

        Another question, if your assumption is correct, why wouldn’t raising it to 20 or 25 cars be even better and more profitable? That would have allowed Danica to make the playoffs.

  5. Avatar

    Ideally, yes 12 or 8, but that won’t happen. There is too much cache for teams and sponsors “making the playoffs”. That’s why the number of eligible teams steadily increased especially after big name drivers started missing the Chase in the early years (Gordon 05, Stewart 06, Jr). However, under the current format the chances of a driver from the back of the grid making it to the finale, let alone winning are slim to none. The top preforming teams rack up enough playoff points to just about waltz through. Look at last year’s final 8, once Joey won at Martinsville it put everyone outside the “Big 3” into must win mode. Therefore, they can just leave it at 16 because outside of the extra money you get for being in the playoffs, the only only real thing the bubble teams will get to celebrate is the photo they take at the cutoff race. You cannot win the championship now without winning races. If that little bit of a “participation trophy” keeps sponsors happy and cars on the track, I’m ok with the bloated field.

    • Avatar

      You got it, not even sure it is sponsors as much as NASCAR fans backlash when their favorite driver didn’t make the chase. You also very much can win the championship without winning races mathematically. If anything last year proved the advantage you gain by winning that initial race to the last round as your team now can focus on building a car for Homestead where as the other competitors are forced to focus on the next race. Wins don’t matter as much as stage points and average finish. Look at the current standings right now, Kyle and Joey are very close in the standings but the stats would say otherwise outside of 1 stat (stage points).

      I overall get the point you are making, as Joey was only hot for the last 5-8 weeks of the year and beat out the 3 drivers who dominated the series, similar to the wildcard Giants taking down the Patriots in the 2008 super bowl.

      • Avatar

        ” NASCAR fans backlash when their favorite driver didn’t make the chase”. So basically fans are idiots. They are OK that their driver had a shitty season, has next to no chance of winning the chase, they just want that label that says “successful”. If that’s all it takes then maybe they need to raise the number of drivers.
        This reeks of 21st century participation trophies logic. You’re all winners. What a load of crap.

  6. Avatar

    1) If it was my decision I would immediately get rid of it!

    2) In regards to your article, my opinion is this: 8 Drivers for the remaining 4 events. Playoffs are hard to get into! Having 16 drivers or even 12 when there are already 3 teams with 4-4-2 cars (12 total) that are considered top equipment, add 4 more if you consider Hendrick in this category (although last 2 years performance I have a hard time putting them there) then how is it hard to make the playoffs? You have guys that will pull a top 10 here and there off making the playoffs. 8 cars will make it much more difficult and if you dont have the wins to get you in, every position will matter! Look at the points today. Does anyone think any of those drivers 9th on back are deserving of a playoff spot based on their performance this season?

    Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Clint Bower, and Jimmie Johnson. 1 win between the 9 of them and 34 top 5s. NASCAR keeps wanting to compete with the NFL, this is why we hear comparisons between the two sports all the time! They proved this is still true by scheduling Eldora on the same night as the HOF game! The Patriots in 2008 missed the playoffs going 11 and 5, eleven and five!, so there should be seasons where a driver who has a win or even 2 will miss the playoffs.

    A playoff with 16 drivers is hilarious, what makes it even more embarrassing for the sport is watching guys who average finishes of 20th make the “playoffs” without a win.

    • Avatar

      To make it clear…get rid of it (it = any type of playoff system or idea) as playoffs don’t belong in motor sports outside of drag racing or events similar. Essentially the entire season is a playoff, at a certain point you are mathematically eliminated. I still never understood why they changed it to begin with.

  7. Avatar

    Dickering with technicalities of a bad idea will not yield solutions.

  8. Avatar

    So how do people feel about this as an option if NASCAR insists on keeping a “playoff” format.
    top 12 in points, note lose the win and in scenario but have wins count with more points so if we leave the current finishing order points in place now 1st is 40 have that be actually say 60 (no bonus just straight points (keep stage points as is ) and 2nd gets say 52, 3rd 48, 4th 45, 5th 43 and then 39 at 6th and go down by the one point per position to what ever last place is.
    This gives a win more importance but keeps points in play and rewards top 5’s as well.
    Here is the “playoff” idea have it be the top 12 only, reduce the number of races to 9, eliminate 3 after 3, eliminate 4 after 3 more and have the top four run a 3 race playoff and make damn sure they are on different style tracks.
    I still can’t wait for the following, or similar, scenario to occur, stage two restart and the 4 eligible drivers for the championship are all in the top 10. someone wrecks and takes out all 4 of them, and 3 are outright out of the race and 1 goes on the damaged vehicle clocks which expires as he leaves his pit box thus is not eligible to finish the race.
    There you have it Mr. Brian France, your champ finishes 31st and not even on track.
    Congrats!

  9. Avatar

    … agree I think. I believe you mean to have no playoff at all by your shrink it to zero comment.
    Yes it needs to go back to the full season, reward wins with say 10 or 15 more points and literally have it built into the point system and the only “bonus” points would be leading most laps, and the stage points. I do not mind stage racing but it has really screwed up the road courses and Pocono due to eliminating some strategy plays as the broadcasts have pointed out.

  10. Avatar

    Whatever stupid method they use to determine a champion, only the top 5 in points should be considered as playoff eligible. Once you get below the top 5 in points you usually start dipping into drivers that have had average, non-championship worthy seasons.
    The best way is still the original way, a championship based on the entire season with no points being gifted to make it close. It doesn’t matter what the point structure looks like as long as all 36 races are equally considered.
    One thing is for sure, 16 is waaay too many. The field is so watered down that it becomes a joke.

    • Avatar

      Absolutely, 16 is a joke and if they put it back to the old format I think we would see some real tight battles work out throughout the season. We currently have one now between Joey and Kyle. Would be nice to see this battle play out for all 36 races….oh well get to crown a “regular” cup season champion here in 4 more races. Then onto the circus.

  11. Avatar

    I was always under the impression that a ‘playoff’ was only among those eligible for a title. Having every team involved in the sport on the field at the same time is not, in any way, a playoff. That is only one thing that makes the entire proposition so ridiculous. I have a hard time getting all excited about a 10 race crapshoot ‘champ’. from what I see and hear, so do a lot of other fans. If Matt having a 1 win title is the issue, then having a ‘one win and you’re in’ format does nothing to potentially change that scenario. The idea was the ‘brainchild’ of the village idiot of the France family. The media complained about drivers points racing…which this convoluted format has only made even worse! How many different kinds of points can a driver collect? which ones are good for counting towards what? More drivers than ever talking about having a ‘good points day’? The whole idea is so ill conceived that is isn’t even worth considering. If people still wonder why Jimmie Johnson, one of the best ever, is not held in the same esteem as The King or The Intimidator, I suggest it is because the only titles he has won were 10 races long. Just not the same.

    • Avatar

      … and do not forget he was essentially gifted one title when Edwards and Logano did some really stupid racing at Miami and crashed each other and Johnson slid by for the championship. Yes he was in the top five at the time but likely had no real chance of winning or beating the other two on straight performance.

  12. Avatar

    In my eyes, if there is a need for a playoff format. I would shrink the field to 10 cars. The Top 8 in points and drivers 9 and 10 would be the wild card drivers. Any driver who has a win and is in the Top 15 in points could get into the field. Meaning you need to race every race, remove the waiver BS and earn your ride into the playoffs. Shrink the Playoff races from 10 to 7. Make the first race the “wild card race” and eliminate 2 drivers after that first race. Have the final 2 rounds of the playoffs 3 races a piece. You wouldn’t have to eliminate playoff points in the final races and further pushes drivers to earn as many playoff points they can and race as hard as they can each week to maintain a top 8 position in points and stay in the top 15 if they need a wild card.

  13. Avatar

    Shrink it to ZERO!