Way back in 2004, NASCAR devised a playoff system with hopes of one thing: attracting a demographic whose attention span, raised on information meted out in colorful bursts, was decidedly shorter than that of the long-term, traditional fans. The sport was riding a high as the water-cooler fad of the moment and wanted the wave to keep growing.
Having to follow a point system that took place over a whole year, they decided, was too much, and while it’s been changed several times, morphing into its current configuration, the playoff era was born.
With it came a new point system that was also designed to keep the field closer together. They threw in some extra incentives in stage points.
But was it overkill?
When the national touring series pull into Phoenix, they do so with a clean slate, because the playoff system includes a reset that sends the four contenders in each series into the final race in a tie, so that the title simply goes to the top finisher.
But here’s the thing: under the current points system but without the playoffs, you have that tie in the Cup Series right now. Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are deadlocked at the top in the traditional, season-long standings.
What you wouldn’t have is the four-way battle, as they’d be on top by more than 200 points.
But would you need it?
One of the biggest fan complaints in recent years has been NASCAR not always letting races play out organically, with liberal use of the caution flag to tighten up the field. So why not let the championship play out the same way? The one-point tally will keep contenders close — if they’ve raced well enough. Looking at the entire 2021 season, does anyone other than Larson or Hamlin really deserve a chance at the title? Realistically, no.
But Larson and Hamlin have been neck and neck all year long. Hamlin’s consistency has kept pace with Larson’s dominance. Why, then, should there be anyone else?
The simple answer is t-shirt sales and hopes of making more fans tune in to watch their favorites. They may or may not be selling fans short. Loyal fans of a driver are going to tune in and hope he wins no matter what. Casual fans might not tune in regardless.
Hamlin is actually in danger of falling out of the Championship 4 if he has a bad finish in the next two races. Like Kevin Harvick’s early exit last year, the drama that creates isn’t necessarily good for the sport. At this point last year, Harvick held a 140-point lead under a non-playoff tally, a number that would all but guarantee him the title.
And yes, it’s absolutely true that teams would approach the season differently under a different system — we’ve seen that happen with every change to the playoff system since 2004.
The one-point system does keep things appropriately close, and with tweaks it could reward winning a little more. Does NASCAR need both that and the playoffs?
It seems strange that fans would rail against unnecessary cautions, whether in the form of stage racing or phantom debris, but not against a point system that basically does the exact same thing to the championship race over the entire season. Is that actually happening (and if it is, seems hypocritical to say the least), or is that only NASCAR’s version of what fans want and not the full reality?
It all seems disingenuous. The best, most exciting races often happen because they play out organically, regardless of whether there are late cautions and restarts. Sure, you see some clunkers too, where a driver rises to the occasion and dominates. But that’s part of racing, and it’s preferable to having the race manipulated with cautions that aren’t caused by an on-track incident or visible debris.
So too, then, should the season play out. If there are two or more equally great cars in any given race, they usually show up at the end and create an exciting finish. And two or more drivers having the season of their lives are capable of doing that too.
The 2021 season has played out as it should with two drivers rising to the occasion, but we all know that phantom debris caution is just around the corner, and it’ll set off the restart NASCAR thinks it needs at Phoenix Raceway. Under the current points system the playoffs are nothing more than debris on track — that nobody but NASCAR can see.
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