While I am fairly certain that most true NASCAR fans don’t begrudge the fact that Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Cup Series championship, I am sure there are those that maintain he earned it through a playoff format that is faulty at best.
Several fans who do not support a playoff system told us what, in 2020, was the most glaring problem. Kevin Harvick won seven races during the regular season – which ended just before the 10-race playoffs began – and two of the first three playoff races, yet failed to make it to the Championship 4.
Rather than rehash the reasons Harvick didn’t make it, that he was left out raised a singular complaint: How is it that the driver who won more races than any other driver and was atop the point standings when the regular season ended was not eligible to win the title?
It was suggested the contenders for the championship should be the top four in points before the final event and the regular season champ if he is not otherwise eligible.
Interesting concept, for sure. And it’s one supported by many, including several current and former NASCAR competitors.
As the regular season champion, Harvick did indeed make the playoffs. And he almost made it to the final round. A 17th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway, a week before the finale at Phoenix Raceway, helped knock him out of any chance at a second title.
What happened to Harvick can, and has, happened to any team in any major league sport that has a playoff system.
In these systems, the regular season champ in any league, or a division of that league, indeed makes the playoffs – just like Harvick.
But when the playoffs begin, it’s every team for itself. Doesn’t matter a twit what it did during the regular season. Win or go home.
And as you know, anything can happen in the playoffs. Records mean nothing except when it comes to seeding. From that point, the team with the worst regular season record can knock off the team with the best as long as its eligible for the title.
The team heavily favored to win a championship can be eliminated quickly or, perhaps, lose in the title game. There are all kinds of possibilities, and if you follow any major league sport – baseball, basketball, football, hockey – you know this.
It is what the playoffs are all about.
Admittedly, NASCAR playoffs have a bit of a twist. A driver can advance from one round to another without winning a race. Drivers must have enough good finishes to keep him among the required point leaders who get to move on.
That means there is a scenario where a driver could win a championship without winning a race, such as when Matt Crafton won the the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship in 2019.
NASCAR says that a driver who wins during the regular season all but clinches a spot in the playoffs – that means there is the possibility of a non-winner moving on if he’s got the necessary points.
If that driver is among the top 16 when the playoffs begin, they’re in. If they’re among the top 12 after the first round, he advances. Then a top eight in points means advancement. A top four in points afterward puts them in the finale. They wins the title if he or none of the other three contenders win at Phoenix and the others finish behind him in the race.
Yeah, yeah all of this is highly unlikely in Cup – but certainly possible.
Imagine the howl if a driver won a Cup championship without winning a race.
That howl has been heard more than once in NASCAR, especially during the era without playoffs – when the point system was based on consistency of performance and not so much victory.
That was one reason why NASCAR’s first version of the playoffs began in 2004.
A cry to return to the old point system based on performance over the course of the full season alone has been heard ever since NASCAR adopted playoffs.
It continues today.
I hear it. I understand it.
But that system was flawed, too. For every season that produced an exciting season finale – like 1992 when Alan Kulwicki won the title by 10 points over Bill Elliott in a tense, strategic final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway – there were a dozen or so where the title was a foregone conclusion. The last race of the season meant little or nothing.
I am not suggesting NASCAR’s playoff system is perfect. Nor will it ever be universally popular.
But don’t look for it to go away. That’s not happening.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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