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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Did You Notice?: NASCAR Championship Leaves Non-Playoff Teams Fighting For Scraps

Did You Notice? … The focus on the NASCAR championship has made non-playoff teams more irrelevant than ever? Over 15 years into the concept of a postseason and six years into the current format, drivers failing to make the playoffs are struggling to gain any momentum once the final 10 races begin.

We saw this development in full force this past weekend at ISM Raceway. The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series semifinal saw its eight remaining playoff drivers running 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 during much of the race’s first half. Chase Elliott’s wreck eliminated him, shuffling the field a bit, but the remaining contenders stayed near the front. The top six finishers at the finish were playoff drivers with Joey Logano ninth, the most top-10 finishers at ISM under this current format. They combined to lead 305 of 312 laps, with only Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski briefly breaking through using pit strategy.

In the end, Denny Hamlin’s victory was the 39th for playoff drivers in the last 40 postseason races (The lone exception: Matt Kenseth’s final career win in November 2017 at ISM Raceway). The season finale should be no different: a Championship 4 participant has won both the race and the title every year since 2014.

To some degree, having the cream rise to the top during the playoffs makes sense: there’s a reason these drivers have qualified in the first place. You shouldn’t expect them to run 20th every week. And yet … you can tell how a top-down approach in an era of multi-car teams has affected the sport. The second teams are eliminated, they’re left for dead as the focus turns toward championship-level programs. Teams switch around their best crew members, maximizing advantages while non-playoff teams are forced to defer. You run into situations like last November, when pole sitter Hamlin was forced to give up his pit stall at Homestead-Miami Speedway to teammate Kyle Busch.

This scenario creates a situation where sometimes it feels like the other 30 or so drivers are just obstacles on track for the title contenders. Their success is not to be discussed or celebrated when the championship is where the money is. It’s a business level focus that creates a Formula 1 style stagnancy at the front of the field.

It creates a tough situation for NBC, who some have criticized for limiting coverage to playoff contenders. But when no driver is running toe-to-toe with the postseason field, what do you do? Drivers are fully conscious of racing around them, fearful of one false move that costs someone a title shot. Conservative racing produces less-than-ideal results. Through nine races, 80 percent of top-five finishes (36 of 45) have been earned by drivers currently in the playoffs. Just one (Michael McDowell at Talladega Superspeedway and Daniel Suarez at Texas Motor Speedway) were earned by someone outside the original top 16.

Looking ahead, Homestead is poised to produce plenty of storylines besides the 2019 Cup title. Retirements, while not as high-profile as past years, include Paul Menard and David Ragan. Daniel Hemric and Ryan Preece are separated by 10 points in the battle for Rookie of the Year. No Hendrick Motorsports driver is higher than ninth in the standings; that would be their worst performance since 2000.

Let’s hope everyone takes a moment and recognizes they’re happening. The championship is the new everything in NASCAR these days, but when you keep all competitors on the racetrack, it’s not the only thing.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • So nice to see The Money Team Racing on the entry list, right? You might remember this team cooking up a storm late last month when people discovered boxer Floyd Mayweather had a website and Twitter centered around a new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team. There was just one problem: no tweets and a website that switched to “more info coming soon” the second people started reporting on it. Now, they’re not at Homestead-Miami Speedway, no plans have been announced for 2020 and another celebrity who looks like they want to get involved in the sport instead reminds us how difficult it’s been for new ownership to get involved.
  • The most competitive title race this weekend may be in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The Big 3 there of Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have dominated the season but I’m keeping my eye on the fourth driver: Justin Allgaier. Earning his first win of the season last week at ISM Raceway, the No. 7 Chevrolet team is peaking at the right time and enters HMS with nothing to lose. It’s a position similar to Joey Logano last year in the Cup Series, and we know how that one turned out.
  • Some nostalgia this weekend as HMS hosts the championship for the final time. We see this track move to a March date in 2020 and … then what? This track has produced some competitive racing in recent years, and 2019 should be no different with the new handling package. But you wonder what the support will be down in the Miami market the second it’s pulled from championship week.
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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in 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.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Bristol in August was neutered the moment the 10 race Chase was put into play. It is too close to the “playoff” and drivers are less inclined to take chances that may hurt the points situation. Long time fans saw this this travesty in 2005 and forward. Then the Bristol powers that be, f’ed up the track and it has not been the same since.

  2. Avatar

    I think it is fairly easy to see the decline in fans in the stands, and watching on TV, can be directly related to the implementation of the Chase, or excuse me “Playoffs”!

  3. Avatar

    Yep, the championship format and the associated focus by NBC solely on those drivers have ruined the last 10 races of the season with respect to the races themselves. I could deal with the focus by the TV announcers on those 8 drivers but I can’t deal with the fact that the other 30 drivers move out of the way. It’s not just the cream rising to the top, it’s the rest of the drivers willingly sinking to the bottom that ruins everything. Way too much focus on the championship from Daytona in February to Homestead in November.

    • Avatar

      The focus on next year’s “championship” will start on Sunday after the event’s winner’s (and “champion”} THIRD interview with the question, “Who will be next year’s “champion”?

  4. Avatar

    The ‘other’ teams tip toeing around the ‘player’ is just one of the problems with putting the entire emphasis on the title and dismissing the rest of the season as nothing a point opportunities. And the teams ARE treated as just moving obstacles for the ‘players’. So, make it easy for the TV folks and eliminate all but the ‘top 8’. Since that’s all we get to see or hear about, just let them save the $ for next year. Then Nascar can get an idea how much fans ‘love’ the idea of 8 teams that matter…and the rest don’t. Curse Brian France and the rest of the family for supporting this totally unnatural and pathetic way to crapshoot for a title.

  5. Avatar

    It’s no accident that the playoff drivers all tend to be up front. Those outside are to not mess with “The Show”.

    The indelible image in my mind was Larson having the dominant car at Homestead a couple of years ago, surging through the field late in the race and then mysteriously settling in at 3rd or 4th place.

    This isn’t just a phenomenon in the actual playoff races. Races like the Bristol Night Race and the Southern 500 that are near the playoffs have fallen victim to this as well.