The current Playoff format is one of the most controversial moves in NASCAR history, but potentially the most controversial aspect of it is the Winner-take-All Championship race at the end of the season. No matter how the regular season goes or the Playoff goes, it all comes down to one race at Phoenix where the highest finisher amongst the Championship contenders wins the Championship. Is that the best way to determine a Champion, and what adjustments could be made?
The Benefits of a Championship Race
It’s Simple and Exciting
For all of the complaints that people have regarding the current Playoff format being overly complicated with stage points, elimination rounds, and Playoff points. However, the final race is as simple as can be. The driver who finishes the highest amongst the Championship 4 contenders wins the Championship.
It’s very simple, and it is very easy to follow. There are no stipulations, no qualifiers, nothing to make it even more complex than it needs to be. On top of that, it is objectively very exciting when a Championship goes down to one final race, and it has made for some dramatic moments.
It Forces Drivers to Perform in a High-Pressure Scenario
The Playoffs create high-pressure scenarios where drivers have to compete at their best or risk losing their ultimate goal. Clutch performance is a telling trait that any top athlete desires to have. Those who are able to perform when everything is on the line are held in high regard.
In NASCAR, that was not always present throughout history because Championships were decided well before the season came to an end. This Championship race forces drivers to perform in the moments of highest pressure.
The Detractors of a Championship Race
It’s Unfair to Drivers Who Have Been Near the Top
The winner-take-all Championship race has the detractor of being perceived as “unfair” to those who have been on top of the points standings or running up front throughout the Playoffs. A driver can theoretically win 35 races, then they can have a random failure in the last race of the season to lose the season-long Championship. Of course, that would never happen, but, that is a crazy hypothetical that could technically happen.
The current format allows for crazy scenarios like this to happen, and plenty of drivers who may have won the Championship in other formats are left on the outside looking in. Examples include drivers like Kevin Harvick in 2020 and the “Big 3” of Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Harvick in 2018. Not everyone is a fan of sacrificing this much fairness of competition for entertainment.
It’s Too Small of a Sample Size
Another issue with allowing the Championship to come down to one race every single year is that it is too small of a sample size. To force a 36-race season every year to come down to only one race at the end does not make sense to some. So many things can happen in one race that deciding a Championship can feel unfair.
Again, some drivers can be near perfect for the entire season, and something completely random takes them out of the Championship on the last day of the season. It’s a tough pill to swallow for many including the one who loses out on the Championship.
What Changes Could Be Made
Expand the Championship Round
This may be the easiest solution if NASCAR absolutely has to keep the elimination-style Playoffs intact. If they make the Championship round maybe three races or even longer, that could allow for a larger sample size. It also would bring stage points into the equation as well.
The drawback to this would be that winning would not matter as much in the final round as it does now. Drivers competing for the Championship would go all-out for points instead of winning races, which is exactly what this format was trying to fix. Instead of the emphasis on winning all season, the emphasis is on pure points racing for the final three races.
Make Stage Points Count For Championship Contenders
Instead of just having drivers race for the win during a Championship race, the drivers could instead be forced to go for stage points as well. If stage points counted, it would force drivers to run an entire race instead of just finishing up front at the end. It might somewhat alleviate the sample size problem.
However, this would complicate the Championship fight because it would come down to stage points as well as finishing position. It also does not totally alleviate the sample size problem because it only comes down to one race. Maybe it could work, but, there are some things to consider.
The Playoffs coming down to one Championship race is not something that every fan loves, but some do like it. Is there a better way to determine a Champion?