Q: NASCAR has been seeing a lot of comparisons to some stick-and-ball playoff formats with Kevin Harvick’s elimination. Is it fair to compare, or should NASCAR try and remain as unique as possible? Justin G., Tulsa, OK
The playoff format for the last seven years in the NASCAR Cup Series has drawn comparisons to several other sports, which is not what many fans want to happen at all. With NASCAR, which had a unique playoff format from 2004-13, nobody really ever compared the sport to others. When the sanctioning body established the current system, which gifted winning over consistency, there drew the comparisons.
Is this fair, or should people stop comparing other sports even with the format? Why is NASCAR still different than others, even with winning being rewarded more?
After winning at Martinsville Speedway to advance to the Championship 4, Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are bringing a lot of momentum with them. Gustafson, in particular, knows how this deal is, having been in this position once before with Jeff Gordon in 2015. He has led several drivers to wins and near championships and has established himself as one of the top crew chiefs in the sport.
Even with some questionable decisions over the years, is he worthy of being compared to some of the best crew chiefs of the past decade? Is his career on the box more impressive having won with several top drivers versus only one? Will Elliott and Gustafson become a dynamic duo for a long time to come?
A: I have always been one to say that NASCAR should be a unique entity. It was never one to be compared to any regular stick-and-ball sport like football, basketball or baseball. The playoffs have created this sense of drama and entertainment, and while it seems like it works for our sake, the ratings have seemed to suffer the last few years with the system.
Is it good for the sport to have this type of system though? There are definitely pros and cons, but it is more positive than negative. Of course the regular season champion missing the Championship 4 in two of the three national touring series is not a good look, but it is part of it. Harvick and Austin Hill both had bad luck in the Round of 8, leading to bad results when they needed to be their absolute best.
When NASCAR first established the playoffs back in 2004, many fans were opposed, and it created a weird vibe across the NASCAR fan base. Personally, I did not watch the sport pre-playoffs, so I’m not sure what the feeling was of crowning a season-long champion. The playoff format from that year until 2013, though, seemed like it was unique enough to be considered good and exciting.
The change in 2014 was something many fans and media questioned, but when you look back now, it was created for this entertainment factor. Sunday (Nov. 1) at Martinsville was a prime example of what this format is created to do. Many people were frustrated, but it made for one of the most dramatic and exciting races we have ever seen in the playoff era.
The downside to this is that comparison to other sports. Racing should never be compared to others. Playoffs do not happen in any other form of motorsports, and it works. NASCAR is the most popular form of motorsports in the United States, and to keep that up, they need to have this system. Ratings may come back if you change it back to a 2004-like playoff system, but you would not know that until it happens, if it happens.
We have to look at the positives that NASCAR has with this system at the moment. Even if it means a driver with the most wins does not get to race for a championship at season’s end, that is the nature of the game. Most years, this is a non-issue. The system is here to stay from the looks of it, and it has definitely given us some of the best playoff moments we have ever seen.
The Phoenix Raceway race this weekend will most likely be one for the ages, and here is the thing, without the format, this race could potentially mean nothing. Now, we have a race for the title, and while some may think this is not how it should be, surely it is exciting to have this to look forward to.
Q: Could Alan Gustafson be mentioned in the same category as Rodney Childers, Chad Knaus and Cole Pearn as far as best crew chiefs of the last decade, especially if he can win a title with Chase Elliott? Brian K., Daytona Beach, FL
A: As much heat as Gustafson has taken over the years for some questionable decisions, when it comes down to it, he is one of the best in the garage when it comes to being a crew chief for a top-tier team. This is not just based off of 2020 either; it’s based off of his entire career for being on top of the box.
We all know how good Childers has been wherever he has gone or how good Knaus was with Jimmie Johnson. But think about Gustafson and what he has done and who he has been with in his career.
Starting out, he worked with Kyle Busch in his days at Hendrick Motorsports. He brought Busch wins to start his career, and it put Gustafson on the map as far as a crew chief who could be around for a while. When Busch left, Casey Mears was his driver, and while success was not found, he was still in line to get to work with Mark Martin the following season.
Martin went on to win five races in 2009 and damn near captured his first career title. This was among Martin’s best years in Cup, with Gustafson leading the charge. While neither found true success in 2010, Gustafson then moved onto Jeff Gordon, where he had his most success.
Together, the pairing of Gordon and Gustafson was a powerful duo who could have definitely won a championship or two had some things not gone awry at the wrong time. Now with Elliott, he has established himself as one of the best, and he is so far from done.
Elliott and Gustafson both have a chance at their first title this weekend at Phoenix. As a crew chief, Gustafson has 30 wins total with four different drivers. That’s impressive, not only with that amount of drivers, but that he has done it with three different generations of Cup cars.
If Gustafson can capture his first alluded title and continue this success with Elliott for years to come, we might be looking at a historic duo as far as crew chief and driver. They have 10 wins together in Elliott’s first five years, but all of those have come since the middle of 2018, including Elliott’s career-best of four this season.
This is not a matter of if Gustafson is one of the best in the last decade, because he definitely is. He may not get the credit he deserves because of his “missed opportunities” atop the box, but he has surely given his drivers some great chances to win lots of races.
After coming up just short with Martin and Gordon in the past, you know getting a championship would be the biggest accomplishment of Gustafson’s career.