As usual, Martinsville Speedway provided no shortage of entertainment. Sunday’s race, the penultimate event of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, offered up plenty of close quarters short track racing. It also featured a tighter battle among the playoff drivers than most fans would have foreseen, given the points among the drivers. But the biggest surprise was how that battle ended. Once the dust had settled, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski had secured their place as contenders in the championship race. Kevin Harvick was among the drivers eliminated.
Yes, Harvick, a nine-time winner in 2020, will not compete for the championship next weekend. He and his Stewart-Haas Racing team had a rough race at Martinsville that ultimately brought an end to Harvick’s title run. First, Harvick struggled with the No. 4’s handling, dropping him back in the pack. Then, a cut tire forced him to pit road under green flag conditions. He spent most of the rest of the race fighting to get back on the lead lap and eventually did. Earning the free pass under the second to last caution seemingly put Harvick back in the clear.
But when the time came to decide the championship contenders, Harvick didn’t have the points to advance. On the last lap of the race, he was still down by one to Hamlin and Keselowski. In a last ditch effort to get a final point, Harvick spun Kyle Busch at the exit of turn 4 with the checkered flag in sight. The move didn’t work, as Harvick spun around and backed into the wall, costing him his last chance to remain in the playoffs.
“Just not a great three weeks, didn’t go our way,” Harvick said. “We fought for everything we had and just came up short.
“These championships aren’t like winning (before), like when Petty and Earnhardt used to win them. You have to put them together three weeks at a time, and it comes down to one race. And, it came down to one race for us tonight, and we came up short.”
It really wasn’t a great run for Harvick through the Round of 8. He finished second at Kansas Speedway but let a win slip away when he was unable to pass Logano in the closing laps. At Texas Motor Speedway, he hit the wall early and his team lost the handling on the No. 4. Havick had to fight hard on Wednesday evening just to secure a 16th place finish. Still, Harvick held a 42-point gap over the cut line heading to Martinsville. The most dominant driver of the season was seemingly safe. But since Elliott was able to leapfrog everyone by winning, the fight for the last two playoff spots came down to Harvick, Hamlin and Keselowski. Hamlin and Keselowski earned 18 and 12 stage points respectively. Compared to Harvick’s zero, it was just enough to force the No. 4 team into a desperate situation.
So, while Harvick and the No. 4 team are not faultless for their elimination, NASCAR’s playoff system created a situation where the three Round of 8 races mattered more for Harvick than the rest of the season. Nine wins, including two in the postseason, were not enough to get Harvick to the championship race. That is an unacceptable flaw in a system that’s shown to be full of flaws in the last seven years. If NASCAR is going to continue to market the playoff system as valuing wins above all else, how does the sanctioning body explain Harvick’s elimination? Why do three postseason races have so much influence on what is otherwise a championship caliber season?
Back in 2004, when NASCAR introduced the original version of the Chase for the Cup, the primary goals were to reward winning more and to give late season races more influence in determining a champion. Unfortunately, the Chase created an imbalance in how the season played out by placing too much emphasis on the final 10 races.
The introduction of the elimination style playoffs made the problem even worse. From 2014 to 2016, all drivers who qualified for the Round of 12 would get their points reset to the same amount. It didn’t matter if you had 10 wins or zero wins up to that point. As long as you were in the Round of 12, you started on equal footing with the other playoff drivers. Drivers who made it to the Round of 8 faced the same hard reset. By manipulating the points standings so many times, NASCAR was wiping out the differences between drivers who had good seasons and those who had great seasons. The drivers who made it to the championship race were most often the ones who survived the chaos of the playoffs, not who performed the best over the whole year. Excellence in the regular season mattered very little.
For 2017, NASCAR added playoff points for race wins, stage wins, and the top 10 points positions at the end of the regular season. These points would be allowed to roll over through the different rounds of the playoffs up until the final race, where the last four drivers would start on equal footing. Playoff points were successful in giving the regular season more weight, but they did not fully correct the problem that good performances in the postseason still meant more than being great in the regular season. NASCAR got very lucky that Martin Truex Jr. won the Cup Series championship in 2017. Truex was absolutely dominant that year, and it would have looked terrible if he had not walked away with the big trophy.
Unfortunately for NASCAR, the problem that the sanctioning body dodged three years ago has come back to haunt them in 2020. Through 35 races, Harvick has earned nine wins, 20 top fives, 26 top 10s, and led 1,531 laps. He leads every driver in all of those categories. Several other drivers have had fine seasons, but Harvick has clearly been head and shoulders above the competition this year. Under a season long points format, he would have already clinched the title. Yet because of a few lackluster performances late in the season, his hopes of winning the championship are gone.
I’ve said it a number of times before, but I’ll say it again here – by continuing to use a playoff format to decide a champion, NASCAR is straying too far from its original purpose. Remember that the primary goal of Bill France and his associates was to establish a consistent set of rules that would determine a national stock car racing champion. Of course, it took NASCAR several decades to truly live up to its national aspirations. But crowning a champion has always been central to NASCAR’s identity.
That’s why it’s a shame to see the sanctioning body continually defend a points system that creates a flawed picture of the season. And yes, a lot of NASCAR’s past points formats had flaws too. Yet those formats were always derived from something that happened on the racetrack. The playoffs, with its constant resetting of points and eliminations, has always been more about creating a show out of the championship battle than determining a champion in of itself. That is not what NASCAR should be about. Yet as long as the playoffs exist, the sanctioning body will continue to blur the lines between sport and entertainment, which will undermine the very legitimacy upon which NASCAR sought to establish at its founding.
It is long past time for NASCAR to rethink the playoffs. Hopefully, Harvick’s elimination will finally lead to the elimination of the playoffs themselves.