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Up to Speed: 2020 Is Another Black Mark Against The NASCAR Playoffs

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.

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kb

Here it comes…selective outrage. This is nothing new, has happened before. They all signed on to play the hands that this system deals, Kevin lost. I dunno, I am not sad by it because was it last year(?) so many races they won and cheated, until one lone inspector caught what the others missed for so long? I cannot shed a tear, but NASCAR is well, NASCAR. This is not the first time, and until something changes, won’t be the last.

rick

The right thing to do is go back to the old system of who earns the most points is the Nascar champion…..

RICHARD MIELKE

This is another reason why have not watched a race in 5 years.

Bill B

Well I don’t have any outrage and I don’t like Harvick but under any year long format you want to come up with, he’d probably be champion. Only in a format where one arbitrary bad race can ruin an entire season of kicking ass could this happen. It gets back the theoretical doomsday scenario where someone could win 35 races in a row, come in second in the 36th race, and lose the championship with a 1.02 average finish.

The only reason I wanted to see Harvick win the championship is because he deserved it more than anyone else based on actual statistics. Otherwise I am glad he got eliminated because he is a terrible competitor with no ethics or sportsmanship.

John Barrick

I get the point of your article, but its no different than in the years past. Harvick dealt with it very professionally. In Nascar’s attempt to remain contemporary they have chosen to mimic stick and ball sports. While I may disagree with that, its no secret what the game is. I’m more puzzled by why Harvick and Rodney struggle with Martinsville. If they weren’t mediocre to poor there, plus have a flat tire this story would be even more unnecessary than it already is.

Lucian Panaite

Harvick is out due to Nascar flaw in the system and Joe Gibbs Racing cheating in the Martinsville race

Terry Costakis

People complaining about Harvick not making the final four are a sign of the times. Let’s just let him in because he had an outstanding regular season. We don’t give the team with the best record an automatic bye into the World Series. Same with the NFL. The fifteen bonus points that he earned for winning the regular season was his reward and should have been enough had he just had a reasonably good run through the playoffs. If you can’t perform in crunch time you don’t deserve to be there. By the way, I’m a Harvick fan.

Carl D.

All good points. It is what it is.

U64387

Ummm, actually they do give the best team a bye into the MLB and NFL playoffs. Just sayin’…

Bill B

The playoff points are kind of the bye. Harvick had enough of them to have a mulligan on most of the contenders in the first two rounds. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough in the last round. Just like in other sports, after that initial bye week the competition gets tougher and the field tightens up.

Brandon

Motorsports should never be compared to other sports.

Jake Forrest

U64387 – They don’t get a bye to the Finals.

Kevin in SoCal

I agree, and I’m a Harvick fan too.

The best team doesn’t always make the finals.

Jerald Wynne

9 Victories this season. And not in the final four?
Any chance NASCAR changes this abomination for next season?

Jo

This situation is not unique to the Playoff system. Bill Elliott won 11 races in 1985 and did not win the championship, same for Ryan Newman with 8 wins in 2003. And the reason in those cases as well as Harvick’s case was the inability to finish well enough in the races they did not win to garner enough points. Harvick could have coasted through the Playoffs if he had had better finishes in just one or two races. The fact that he and his team failed to deliver under pressure is just part of sports.

Stop whining!

Bill B

With some of the comments above I must point out that in this sport all 40 teams compete against each other on the same field for the entire season. In all those stick and ball sports they don’t. Football is the easiest example. Let’s say the Patriot go 16 and 0 while the Cowboys go 14 and 2 (they wish, this season). If the two teams did not meet head to head at least once in the season then how can you conclude the Patriots are better? They may have had an easier schedule. The only fair way to sort that inequity out is some sort of playoff format. In NASCAR there is no need. If Driver A has the best average finish (or whatever metric you want to use, points, wins, whatever) after 26 races or 36 races then he was the best. The playoffs are for entertainment purposes, not to determine the best team. We already know that by looking at the stats.

"On Track Product"

I happen to love the playoff format in NASCAR. It’s brought more excitement and drama and stress than the traditional or “Chase” formats ever brought. I was hesitant when the format was announced. I’ve been a fan for over 30 years. I was hesitant about stage racing, too, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed that as well.
That said, I think the format could use a tweak. Why not make the regular season champ clinch a Championship spot? Race the playoffs exactly the same way and have five cars eligible in the final race? It will make the regular season Championship WAY more valuable and teams will race for it 100 times harder. More excitement. More drama. More stress. I am sure it’s not everyone’s favorite idea, but I think it would fix a lot of the understandable beefs with the format in it’s current state. Plus, it would make the running well throughout the regular season even more important and maybe even the make the final race of the regular season even more of an EVENT.
Just one jerk’s opinion….

Steve

Interesting idea. I offer 3 of my own

1.) Award more points for race winners during the season and in the playoffs.

2.) An extension of #1, get rid of the rule that automatically places the race winner into the next round. As an example, Kurt Busch was over a full race from making the championship race based on points before Martinsville. The win shouldn’t have automatically gotten him into the championship. Make it be by points, which awarding more points to race winners

3.) Simply go back to most points win the championship, but award more points for race winners. It will award a true champion and truly make winning the focal point.

Do you sense a pattern here?

I’m sure other people have some good ideas on some changes to replace this ridiculous format of giving freebees for teams just because they happen to be good over the correct stretch of races.

Steve R

Eric Jones being ordered not to pass denny hamlin for any reason is not RACING

JD in NC

Yeah, if I was Jones, I think I would have said “screw you JGR” you guys fired me. However, he maybe held back from passing Hamlin because of the crew guys on the 11 team that he didn’t want to knock out of running for a championship next week.

John

Hey, what could have happened, did.

At least NASCAR cut Elliott some slack after one of his pit crew jumped the wall early. But I have to wonder if NASCAR would have been as generous if someone less popular, say Kurt Busch, had suffered a similar incident?

As for Harvick missing out, I remember in 1985 when Bill Elliott won over 10 races and Darrell Waltrip only won 3, but DW won the title on points. What happened this year with Harvick is similar. Remember, even the old Latford System had its flaws. If I were Grand Poohbah of NASCAR I’d lose the “playoffs”, drop the stage racing and award a 50 point bonus for wins, but I’m not that guy…

Jo

I agree with your comment, but the rule on crew members over the wall is quite clear:

“Should a crew member’s feet prematurely touch the pit road surface prior to servicing the vehicle, said crew member(s) can re-establish their position back to or behind service wall prior to servicing the vehicle to avoid a penalty.”

Fortunately for Chase, his crew chief and crew members actually read the rule book, apparently unlike the officials who first issued the penalty.

As for the Latford system, you are correct that it was flawed in not placing a sufficient premium on willing races.

Lee

The rules say any pit crew over the wall too soon you get a penalty yet The 9 got the win without getting a penalty. It does not matter the crew member went back to the wall, the rule does not say as long as you touch the wall before you start your pit stop, he was over the wall way too soon. The 4 car should be in the Chase for the Championship period. The 9 should have been out.

Jo

@Lee, actually, the rule book says exactly that! “Should a crew member’s feet prematurely touch the pit road surface prior to servicing the vehicle, said crew member(s) can re-establish their position back to or behind service wall prior to servicing the vehicle to avoid a penalty.”

I guess you need to re-read the rule book, assuming you ever read the rules in the first place.

Upstate9fan

Winning did matter, if the 9 or the 19 don’t win, Harvick is safely in. They had a 42 point cushion going in and they ran like garbage the first 2/3 of the race. If they had just had a so-so day running in the top-10 and getting some stage points they would be safely in. I have my issues with this format, but everyone knows the rules going in and what they have to do to advance. In the end the 4 team “laid an egg” when it mattered the most.

Echo

CHOKE 2020 will be remembered forever. The CHOKER. History won’t be kind Kevin.

Bill B

“The Choker”

He’s a choker, he’s a joker, he’s a midnight stroker….

WJW Motorsports

Harvick’s a punk, and I dislike him. However, he and the 4 team are the 2020 Champs.

Carl D.

Well, they had the best season anyway. At least until yesterday. Maybe we should call him the 2020 Chump.

Roger

All I heard Sunday was points points points. I’m sick of it. It’s just ridiculous.

Dale

Hes like the New England Patriots , the Dynasty is over, grow up and get over it!! Do you want some cheese with that wine? Go Chase Elliot!!! He got eliminated!!

Matty

Look, in past years, Ryan Newman and Clint Boyer came darn close to winning a championship despite not winning a race. That scenario could still happen next year and would certainly doom whatever is left of NASCAR’s fan base.

Jerry

I think NASCAR sucks I quit watching a few years ago like I always said dirt is 4 racing asphalt is for getting there

Jake Forrest

Wow, many great points and we’ll thought out observations in the comment section. I didn’t know that happened on the internet.

It comes down to preference. In North America we like play-offs. Both of the earliest pro sports championships were done that way, World Series and Stanley Cup. NASCAR’s traditional season long Championship does make a lot of sense but the excitement and, this is VERY IMPORTANT, the television ratings of play-offs is missing.

I think getting down to it that’s the key, TV. Same reason PGA made up a season championship. At least NASCAR had one originally!

Donsld McCall

A lot of years ago I was a fabricator and mechanic for a Northwest NASCAR Super Modified crew.. we built our own chassis and some for other teams.. We built them to very specific NASCAR specs and rules and every other year or so NASCAR would change the specs a few week before the season opener! A total mad and unnecessary move! Short track asphalt racing under NASCARS rule book. I have no respect for the rules they make but if you want to play there is nothing you can change!

Dennis P.

Come on people, your talking like Nascar racing is legit. It’s turned in to being just like the WWF. Now they have a new”young gun”, in Chase Elliot, to promote. It also doesn’t hurt that his dad was an actual Star. When Bill drove the racing was legitimate, however when the popularity started to wane, they had to make it more entertaining and have control over the outcomes. Thus, we have this”show” to watch each week. Like watching a movie, you’ll root for one character or another and the outcome will be how the story was written, nothing more, nothing less. Good entertainment, not competition.

Joe

Goofy argument.

Cody Stout

It’s not a black mark on the playoffs. Stewart-Haas racing was struggling. Harvick can just drive a race car to a much higher finish with just his talent. Turning a 10th place car into a into a second place car. In this format 2nd wont get it done. Chase Elliott is showing he is the future of the sport. The Penskey drivers are peaking at the right time. Winning when it counts. Denny Hamlin’s constant perfect no mistakes mentality fits with Joe Gibbs out look on perfection. Toyota is obviously struggling for speed as of late. Kyle Bush rolled the dice to keep his impressive streak alive. Next Sunday night Chase Elliott and Hendrick Motprsorts will be celebrating their championship and race win all in one night. Giving Nascar a glimmer of hope for a disaster of a 2020 season. Written by Cody Stout.

U64387

Under the pre-Brian France revamp of the points system, Harvick would have battled Denny Hamlin for the championship. The Martinsville race probably would have tightened the season points providing a battle in the last race. But, that was then, this is now. I understand all of that; I posit that it could be done better. Come up with a points system for each race that includes points awarded for fastest and most consistent pit stops and points subtracted for penalties and those causing wrecks. Point leader at the end of the race, wins the race. Point leader at the end of the season, wins.

Opie

I stopped watching nascar when they changed the point system .then when many of the great driver like j.r retired for Harvick I will always have respect for him .because he was the driver that raced for Earnhardt when he passed and won that race god bless all the greats that are gone

LTSIII

Boo hoo, Harvick had a teammate ahead of him in the last lap if that team mate would have backed off at allowed Harvick to pass him, he would be in the final 4. sometimes you have to do what’s best for the team meaning the team owners.

Tim Krantz

Same fine and penalty for forcing a driver to slowdown to affect the outcome of a race. Wonder what Mickey Walltrip thought of the non call? Hell Joe got caught with the spoiler incident, now this……….

Ken

Stage wins and the scoring (point system) is horrible. Success all season then in one or two races you’re completely out. I’m going to have a change of heart to even watch Nascar next year. It’s not enjoyable anymore, thank goodness Nascar doesn’t have any input on Football, Baseball, Basketball etc, or it would be ruined also.

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