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Do the Playoffs Improve the NASCAR Racing Product?

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Joshua Lipowski

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As the NASCAR season winds down, the old debate about the Playoffs continues to creep up across all social media. However, given some of the incredible moments that have happened during the Playoffs, the question can be asked, do the Playoffs improve the racing product?

Why It Could Improve the Racing Product

The Pressure of the Playoffs

The Playoffs put drivers in positions where they have to perform under high intensity and high pressure. As a result, drivers will try crazy things to get that extra spot or get that win that they need. It affects how the drivers approach every race and every lap, and it affects how crew chiefs go about pit strategy.

There are plenty of examples of races throughout the history of the Playoffs that were made iconic solely because of the Playoffs being a factor. Drivers attempted things that they had to try in order to make the Playoff cut they needed, and it often came despite a race track that may not produce the best racing. One iconic example of this is the 2022 Xfinity 500 at Martinsville, the race that featured the “Hail Melon”.

Example: 2022 Xfinity 500

Martinsville Speedway produced its’ biggest flop of a race in years that spring largely due to a bad short track rules package. Well, the 2022 Xfinity 500 had an iconic finish featuring the “Hail Melon”, a wild pit strategy play by Chase Briscoe, and a Christopher Bell charge to the front because of a spot in the Championship 4 on the line.

Before this finish, the race had a total of 3 green flag lead changes, and two of those came in stage one. It was not a particularly exciting race, and even the spring race at Martinsville in 2023 was not received well by fans. The Playoffs created some interesting strategy plays late that caused an iconic finish with a move like the “Hail Melon”.

Why It May Not Improve the Racing Product

It’s “Artificially Created”

While the Playoffs can create some iconic moments like the aforementioned “Hail Melon”, not everyone is a fan of it because they feel it is artificially created. Sure, moments like this are exciting to watch, but, for some, in the back of their mind, they cannot get past the fact that it was created by a Playoff format that could negatively impact the integrity of the sport in their mind because of who is winning the Championship.

Instead of a Championship decided by clean driving and consistent running throughout the season, it is decided by a complicated format that depends on how drivers race at certain times of the year. For some, there may be exciting moments, but at what cost? Sometimes drivers who have driven so well throughout the season have their aspirations messed up by a Playoff format.

Example: 2020 Xfinity 500

The 2020 Xfinity 500 featured Kevin Harvick, who was without question the best driver all season long, getting eliminated after having a bad race at Martinsville. There were exciting aspects about this moment because Chase Elliott got a clutch win to get into the Final Four, and Brad Keselowski worked his way into the top-4 on points. Yes, this is objectively interesting and exciting, but at the cost of a driver like Kevin Harvick losing out on a Championship?

Kevin Harvick was the best driver all season long, but he did not win a Championship. There are plenty of other drivers who won Championships under this format that some could argue were not as worthy as other drivers such as Joey Logano in 2018 and Jimmie Johnson in 2016. Yes, these moments and these races are exciting, but is it the good kind of exciting?

The Playoffs create some incredible moments that is for certain. Many people understandably like the Playoffs because of these moments like the “Hail Melon” that it creates. However, some wonder about whether or not the improvement to the excitement level of the racing is worth it for what types of Champions it crowns. Which side of the fence do you fall on?

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Joshua Lipowski

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