NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: The Playoffs Are Ruining NASCAR Racing

It’s that time of year again. Overnight, four NASCAR Cup Series drivers were eliminated from the Round of 16 championship-eligible drivers down to the Round of 12. Somehow the indifferent old sun did what it always does and went ahead and rose Sunday morning.

My guess is that it will do so again as the NASCAR field is trimmed first to eight drivers, then further down the road to four flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun. (OK, that last part is somewhat unlikely.)

As hard as it is to believe, NASCAR’s playoff-style method of choosing a champion (which to date hasn’t included a swimsuit competition) has been with us since 2004.

Why did they go ahead and stir up a simmering pot that had been working just fine for decades? Cynics originally called it the Matt Kenseth rule; in 2003 Kenseth won just one race, and the race he won was just three races deep into NASCAR’s bloated season. That same year, Ryan Newman won eight races (22% of them). Jimmie Johnson finished second in the standings in 2003, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Poor Newman could manage no better than sixth in the final rundown despite all those wins that made him the poster child of NASCAR.

To correct this issue, NASCAR immediately overhauled the old Latford points system and wrote a new rule that stated whichever driver won the most races in the season was the sport’s champion, right? With ties broken by whichever driver sold the most t-shirts in the parking lot. Nope. That didn’t happen.

For one thing, our vanquished ex-pal Brian France didn’t go to a lot of races, and when he did attend one he typically hauled his ass back to the corporate jet and left before the halfway point of the event, so how would he know who won? I mean, there was MRN and whatnot, but it’s tough to pay attention when you’re singing “Day-O” at the top of your lungs with a boat drink held aloft in each hand on the flight home.

France and NASCAR were after bigger game. Every year NASCAR did pretty well in the ratings and new fans were showing up in record numbers back in the early 2000s. But then every fall the NFL season would start and the World Series began, at which point interest in NASCAR went into a tailspin. The playoffs, originally dubbed the Chase for the Championship, were NASCAR’s quixotic attempt to compete against the NFL for the hearts, minds and wallets of we the people. As it stands written in the Book of Bruce, “Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wanna be king and the king ain’t satisfied until he rules over everything.”

The strategy didn’t work. And it ain’t ever going to. Fact is, the ratings for the first week of this year’s NFL season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers/New Orleans Saints game came in at a 13.2 Nielsen rating with over 25 million viewers. NASCAR’s ratings? Despite being broadcast on Saturday night to avoid head to head competition with football, NASCAR managed just a 1.05 rating and 1.738 million viewers.

Of course, a lot of fans complained Richmond Raceway was a boring race. There weren’t enough wrecks. There weren’t enough cautions. Somehow or another Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win yet again.

Despite it all, NASCAR packed up its flying circus and headed off first to Bristol Motor Speedway and this week onto Las Vegas Motor Speedway to kick off the Round of 12 to a largely indifferent audience.

(For the record, no fans will be allowed at the Vegas, race despite the fact what happens in Vegas supposedly stays in Vegas. And apparently, what happens in the whole rest of the world stays in the whole rest of the world. I was struggling to be believe that Vegas track President Chris Powell was even petitioning to be allowed to have fans in the stands this weekend amid a COVID-19 flare-up that had sickened over 1,000 workers in two casinos in Sin City.)

But somehow, between so-called boring Richmond and problematic Vegas, NASCAR managed to stage a barnburner of a race, a truly outstanding race last Saturday night, one that earned (to date) 78% approval from the fans who voted in Jeff Gluck’s weekly “Was It a Good Race” poll. Hell, if Joe Biden or President Donald Trump could get that sort of approval rating, we could call the whole election off and coronate our next president right now.

How’d that happen? Call it a perfect storm. The sort of perfect storm that turns a three-hour tour into becoming castaways on an uncharted desert isle for years.

Look at the two drivers involved in the classic duel at Bristol. Kevin Harvick didn’t have to worry about points — not stage points, not race points, not bonus points, none of them. His win at Darlington punched Harvick’s golden ticket into the next round. He was advancing whether he wrecked the car on the pace laps or if he won, which, in fact, he did.

In the opposite corner in the gaudy red and Skittles colors, unable to complete a sentence without a grotesque profanity and meaner than a rattlesnake with an impacted molar, we find reigning champion Kyle Busch.

If you haven’t gotten the news yet, it’s been 29 races since Busch last won a Cup event, and he’s less than pleased by that turn of events. He’s pretty vocal right now about the fact he doesn’t give a damn about points or championships — he just wants to win another race. In fact, after finishing second (by less than a third of a second), Busch went on to predict that he’d be eliminated in the next round.

Those who follow the sport know Busch is not a paragon of humility, so implicit in that statement is, “And I don’t give a damn. I just want to win some races.”

Busch is quite concerned that this deep into the season, his streak of at least one win for 15 seasons is on the line. Maybe he thinks he won’t be around another 16 years to match it. I’m damn near twice as old as Busch and I ain’t getting measured for a suit that zips up the back anytime soon.

So again, it was a perfect storm. Two drivers unconcerned about points who didn’t have to win the race but wanted to anyway. It seems that most drivers in the playoffs have adopted a mindset that; a top 10 would be fine, and a top five would be nicer. But taking any type of risk that potentially could lead to a DNF isn’t even an option on the table. Which is the sort of thinking that turns races into parades and allows for the first caution-free race at a NASCAR short track since the earth was cooling.

Harvick’s driving and mindset this year remind me of David Pearson. At the height of his career, Pearson was a Ford factory team driver. The team didn’t compete in every Cup race; it only went to the big ones. And when it went to a race, it typically won them or at least finished second to Richard Petty. Why? Pearson wasn’t competing for titles, though he won championships in 1968 and ’69. He also won 16 races in ’68 and 11 in ’69.

So why cut back to a part-time schedule? The big races grabbed all the headlines. Win the Southern 500, the World 600 or even the Rebel 400 or a race of that stature and a picture of your car appeared on page three of the sports section of newspapers across the Southeast that Monday. Occasionally those races and your pretty mug would even show up on Wide World of Sports, though usually weeks after the race.

Ford liked that. It sold a lot of cars for them. Later, Purolator liked that. It sold them a ton of oil filters. Yes, this was back in an era when NASCAR sponsorships tended to be related to cars or car parts, not investment brokerages.

Back in the page three days, there normally wasn’t a whole lot of talk about the title even late in the season. Every race was a unique event unto itself to be savored and enjoyed on its own merits. Imagine that being the same mindset these days, especially among the people tasked with broadcasting the event.

Typically, life holds that a process that takes too long to explain won’t work out well in real life. So you see, starting with the first race in February (and hitching your coach to a wagon train that runs until November, weather and viruses permitting), every driver who wins a race is automatically in the playoffs. In addition to race points, they gets bonus points. Oh, and at indeterminate times during the races we picked in advance, there are what we call stages, and drivers can get stage points, too. There are usually three stages during the race, but that last one doesn’t count, because that’s the one that pays race points. Sometimes there are four stages. Maybe we’ll have four stages in every race next year. You never can tell.

OK, so some folks have embraced stage racing like a rabid porcupine. To be frank, NASCAR doesn’t give a damn what you think. How do you think it got to be the second-biggest sport in America behind only the NFL and closing fast? Oh, wait a second, they’re not. Now let’s discuss how the starting order for the race is determined now that qualifying has gone the way of tailfins, whitewalls and Blinky the Wonder Cat package shelf ornaments.

Somewhere in the midst of your NASCAR 101 lecture explaining how it all works to a new fan (and good luck finding one lately), no matter how erudite it might be, you’ll probably see your subjects eyes glaze over. They’ll likely ask if there’s going to be any big wrecks, how many laps the race lasts and which one of these cats is Jimmie Johnson. Then they’ll go to find the snack table and sneak off without saying goodbye. Likely to catch the 1 p.m. NFL games.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure; that’s several pay grades above mine. If NASCAR wants to go back ahead, give the title to the driver who wins the most races, with ties broken by who finished second the most, then third-place finishes, etc. I’m all for it. I can explain that system in less a minute.

2020 has been a trying year to date, and the hits just keep on coming. When I start feeling overwhelmed I try to remind myself, “This too will pass.”

I mean, there’s not a whole lot of passing going on out on the track lately anyway, is there?

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

34 comments

  1. Avatar

    I absolutely hate stage racing, even more than the Chase for the Championship, which isn’t called that anymore but I refuse to call it a “playoff” because that’s not what it is. Races are not ball games. My biggest gripe with the stage racing is this… why do we give points to drivers at arbitrary points in the race, when the only lap that matters, or should matter, is the last one? We all know that. Even the suits in Daytona know it, but they’re desperate for some magic gimmick to attract more ADD-suffering fans. Dear Nascar: Stage racing isn’t the cure for bad racing, it’s one of the poisons that’s killing the sport. Yeah, I heard you, Matt… Nascar doesn’t care what I think.

  2. Avatar

    Great points Carl. That would be like the Denver Nuggets get bonus points because they have a lead at the end of the 3rd quarter. The only other gimmick in sports that makes no sense is Overtime Loss getting a point in NHL. Redo the points system with one change. The same amount goes to whoever finishes 31st or worst. That will get slow cars out of the races so they are not in the way of the ones trying to win the race.

  3. Avatar

    Absolutely agree. Just use the formula 1 points system. Only the Top 10 score points.
    25 18 15 12 10 8 6 4 2 1.

    Easy to understand and easy to do the math just in case you wanted to. (Not saying most fans are dumb haha)

    I agree the weekly championship being shoved down your throat makes me enjoy the races less. I miss the old days of Benny Parsons trying a new restaurant in the area and actually talking about the race. Made you feel like you were in the moment. Not thinking of anything else but that one specific race.

  4. Avatar

    Aligned and defined! Great column, as always, Matt. I usually watch the last few laps and avoid all the advertising gimmicks in lieu of showing the racing, other than the top five. Next year should be even less competitive with the advent of the “clown (clone) cars”.

  5. Avatar

    Great article. I hate the Chase or whatever you want to call it. And stage racing is a joke. I’ve been watching Nascar since 1965. And now I don’t. It’s such a gimmick now it’s not fun to watch. Things were going fine and they (Brian France) decided they needed to compete with the NFL. Why? When Dale Sr. died it brought so much attention and fans to Nascar and they dropped the ball. I’m sure Dale would have plenty to say about how things are run today. Now they are running Nascar like Sesame Street trying to keep the fans attention by having something happening every second. I’m sorry but the old way was the best and perfect.
    A former fan

    • Avatar

      Best column in a week or two Matt, lol. Seriously this stage race, championship weekend BS sucks. And we have seats at Phoenix. Harvick is the Champ this year period. OBTW Jordan, Hamlin, Wallace is just NASCAR pandering. MJ will be gone in 3 seasons the team in 5.

  6. Avatar

    Agree with you 100% Matt but you are preaching to the choir. I consider the fact that I continue to watch a character flaw in line with an addiction. Apparently most have stopped watching because ratings have become laughable compared to where they once were. We all know the real reason for stages and it has nothing to do with making the competition better. I suppose some fans have embraced stage racing but most of us just find ways to tolerate it. As far as I am concerned it destroys the flow of the race and adds certainty to the proceedings that should be anything but certain.

  7. Avatar

    Matt, you whine even more than Kyle Busch. The Playoff system isn’t going way no matter how much you hate it and how much you bitch about it. Just like lapped traffic isn’t going away.

  8. Avatar

    Stage racing = more commercials. The racing and the fans don’t mean a thing anymore. Gotta keep the sponsors ha.

  9. Avatar

    The Latford system rewarded team consistency and its what propelled NASCAR to “the next level”. Then, Brian France ruined the whole damned thing with his “Chase” format. Under the old system, Gordon would have been “7-time”, Johnson would be “4-time” and Harvick/Edwards would both have two championships. People now argue that all racers have to race the same rules package, which legitimizes things as they stand today, but under the old rules package, how might drivers and teams raced differently? I am not a fan of the stage racing, but its what we’ve got. I don’t see NASCAR changing anything to the format and with the new “clown”(clone) cars, all I see is less passing, more pack racing, more wrecking and hotter tempers. You would think that would draw fans…, but the opposite effect has been the result. Go back to a version of the old system, or something like what Matt described. Relax the rules to allow engineering and innovation. Get rid of the stages and phantom caution flags. What’s need is “back to the future”.

  10. Avatar

    Preaching to the choir Matt. even if they don’t listen, I’m going to keep telling them how absolutely stupid it is to have a ….whatever they call it…in racing. It certainly hasn’t pushed the NFL out of the way, and has alienated a lot of fans that aren’t being replaced.

  11. Avatar

    U64387: The Latford system could have been modified to put a premium on winning – by awarding 5 or 10 bonus points to the race winner and eliminating the silly bonus for leading a single lap. NASCAR decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and they aren’t ever going back on that decision.

  12. Avatar

    NASCAR is the definition of the definition of insanity. Their level of obtuseness is higher than Mount Everest.

  13. Avatar

    i dont like it either but what i like less is the draw should be all the top 36 not 1 thru 12 ect. then the other cars but now the take the running order and invert the top 15 .

  14. Avatar

    I like the winningest driver being the champion. Use second place finishes and third place finishes, etc. to break ties. Make winning the most important thing, not “we had a good points day”.

  15. Avatar

    If a driver wins the first 18 events and finishes last in the rest and another driver finishes last in the first 18 events and wins the rest and another driver finishes second in all the events who gets the title? You can’t start looking at other finishes because then it comes down to consistency, which is the “point” of a “points” championship.

  16. Avatar

    just a thought. How many people do you hear complaining about the playoff systems used by the NFL, MLB, or the NBA? Yep very few if any.
    And nobody can deny how successful they have been. Heck look at college basketball.
    So is the problem the system, or the way the participants have reacted to the system?

    • Avatar

      Or maybe it just doesn’t fit a sport where there are 40 teams competing at the same time.

      It’s neither the participants nor the system, it’s just plain idiotic.

      Square Peg, meet Round Hole.

    • Avatar

      I’ll believe in the NA$CAR chase when there are 32 teams on the field for the Super Bowl. How can there be a “playoff” when no teams or drivers are eliminated from competing?

      • Avatar

        Amen brother. Maybe we are just debating a nonsensical issue. Does anybody think that, regardless of the system it will cause a reversal of the fortunes of the sport or its participants?

  17. Avatar

    I’ll say this – if Kevin Harvick doesn’t win the championship after the year he has been having – rivaling the best single year of anyone – it’s going to be a crying shame. In a year long points battle he would be practically untouchable at this point and would probably wrap it up around Kansas or Texas.

  18. Avatar

    Matt – you missed one, Pearson ‘66, ‘69 and ‘69

  19. Avatar

    Ho Hum, another “I hate the playoffs” article.

    I guess I’m one of the short-attention span fans, because I think this is more exciting than watching one driver run away with it all year and wrap it up with 3 or 4 races left. And I was a Matt Kenseth fan.

  20. Avatar

    i miss green flag pitstops
    i do think the racing at times is a bit more competitive (and forced)
    i would like to see harvick win, as he’s had a stupendous season to date
    but – crapshoot at phoenix will tell all

  21. Avatar

    I don’t recall there being such a big issue about a team wrapping up the title before the last race before. Maybe it’s because there wasn’t the HUGE emphasis put on the title. each race was treated as more of an end in itself, the title just the logical outcome as the season went on. Now they start hammering on the title as soon as they hit Daytona. detracts a lot from the majority of the season. The sad part is that Nascar can’t even seem to draw the sort of fans that only watch a sport during the playoff finals, knowing they aren’t missing a thing during the ‘regular season’.

    • Avatar

      And who is placiing the emphasis on the “playoffs” from the first race? Nascar and the media. I really dont think most people care. And BTW look at the ratings this year. They dove into the 2.0’s and now the 1.0’s long ago. Says a lot imho.
      Think we make more of the effect of the “playoffs” than its worth. NFL is the 800 lb gorilla.

  22. Avatar

    How interesting that the current NASCAR points system was concocted by people who didn’t like NasCAR racing.