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How Does the NASCAR Playoff Waiver System Work?

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What’s Happening?

The talk of the town surrounding Kyle Larson skipping the start of the Coca-Cola 600 was whether or not NASCAR should grant him a “Playoff waiver.” Well, what even is a waiver, why is it so important that Kyle Larson attain one, and how has NASCAR officiated this in the past? We answer all of those questions today.

  • The Playoff waiver system began when NASCAR implemented the modern Playoffs in 2014. The rules in place forced NASCAR to put in a rule to make drivers compete in every race.
  • However, NASCAR has given out plenty of waivers in the years since. These waivers have been for multiple reasons, but they usually involve a driver being forced out of the car for one or multiple races at a time.
  • Fans are generally not thrilled with the waiver system. They feel it can set a dangerous precedent, potentially devaluing the concept of starting every Cup Series race.

How Does It Work?

In 2014, NASCAR implemented a new Playoff system, where any driver who wins a race in the regular season automatically qualifies for the Playoffs. In addition, any Playoff driver who wins a race in one of the first three elimination rounds automatically earns a spot in the next round.

There’s an obvious issue here. If a driver wins a race, they are not incentivized to show up until the Playoffs or the next Playoff round.

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Therefore, NASCAR implemented a rule that drivers had to compete in every race to be eligible for the playoffs. However, drivers and teams can request a “Waiver” to keep them eligible for the Playoffs.

How Has NASCAR Policed This?

Given how rare it is, especially nowadays, for part-time drivers to win races or even step foot in a Cup Series car, this rule hasn’t been utilized much. Since 2014, only two race winners have not received Playoff berths in the Cup Series due to not completing the full schedule: Justin Haley in 2019 and Shane Van Gisbergen in 2023.

It’s a bit more common in the lower series since there are more part-time drivers. Examples include Ryan Preece (2018) and Josh Berry (2021) in the Xfinity Series, and Corey Heim (2022) in the Truck Series.

However, numerous exceptions have been made. This is where waivers come in, including for drivers who intended to run full-time during the season they were granted the waiver.

Waivers are primarily given to drivers who are not competing due to something forcing them not to, such as an injury. Injury/illness waivers are by far the most common type of waiver given out by NASCAR, and they have been utilized many times.

Examples of injury/illness waivers given out to drivers who eventually made the Playoffs include Denny Hamlin (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Tony Stewart (2016), and Austin Dillon (2020). The waiver system first became controversial in 2015, when Busch went on to win the Championship despite missing the first 11 races of the season due to a broken leg.

NASCAR has also given out waivers following driver suspensions. Kurt Busch was suspended indefinitely in 2015 after a Deleware court said that Busch, “By a preponderance of the evidence,” committed an act of domestic violence.

However, Busch was never officially charged due to a lack of evidence, as Delaware Attorney General spokesman Carl Kanefsky said. Busch’s suspension was soon lifted after 3 races, and he made the Playoffs later that season.

Chase Elliott also received a waiver in 2023 after missing six races due to injury and one due to a suspension. However, he did not win a race to qualify for the Playoffs.

The Craftsman Truck Series had a unique case in 2019 with Tyler Ankrum. He was ineligible to race on tracks longer than 1.0 miles early in the season because he was not 18 yet. He won that summer at Kentucky, and NASCAR granted him a waiver, allowing him to compete in the Playoffs.

The Kyle Larson Conundrum

This brings us back to Kyle Larson. What should NASCAR do? NASCAR has not had any situation quite like this before.

On one hand, Larson had every intention of competing in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, practicing and qualifying the car on Saturday. He also intended on jumping in the car with around 150 laps to go before the rain came and washed out the race.

However, when the rain came through earlier that day at Indianapolis, he had a choice between starting at Indy or starting at Charlotte. One could argue that Larson skipped NASCAR to race in a rival series. Then again, it is the Indianapolis 500, the biggest race in the world, and NASCAR probably gained a lot of publicity thanks to Larson attempting to do “The Double.”

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer opened up about the discussions regarding Kyle Larson. He did refer to this instance as “Unchartered territory”, while also saying that no request for a waiver has been given as of yet.

It’s a little bit of uncharted waters for us because, in the past, the waivers have been mostly given for medical reasons. So, this one’s a little bit different from that standpoint…We’ve had some preliminary discussions, but, we haven’t landed.

Elton Sawyer

Everyone awaits NASCAR’s decision on what they will do with Kyle Larson’s waiver situation.

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