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The Controversial NASCAR Playoffs: Good or Bad?

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Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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There are few things, if anything, more controversial in NASCAR than the Playoffs. Some love it, some hate it, and others tolerate it. Some people want NASCAR to keep the Playoffs as they are, and others are proponents of returning to a season-long format similar to the Winston Cup days. Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument, and what it is that makes these systems work for some but not for others.

The Pros of the Playoffs

With the Playoffs as they are currently, it is a guarantee that the final races of the season are going to be dramatic and exciting. There will not be someone just riding off into the sunset with the Championship being a foregone conclusion. It also forces the drivers to perform under extreme pressure situations.

There is something to be said for drivers who can keep their cool and perform in high-pressure scenarios. Clutch performance is often one of the critical elements that define the career of an athlete. A lot of great NASCAR moments of recent years like the “Hail Melon”, happened because of the situation surrounding the playoffs.

It also places a large emphasis on winning and running up front throughout the day. Winning truly is everything, and the bonuses that winning gives you throughout the regular season with the current system often are enough to push drivers deep into the playoffs. Stage racing also rewards drivers who run up front throughout the race, rather than just who happens to be up front at the end of the day.

The Cons of the Playoffs

The Playoffs place a large emphasis on the final 10 races of the season, but the first 26 races are often overlooked as a result. Drivers who put together great regular seasons are often done in by the Playoff system. Kevin Harvick in 2020, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in 2018, and Chase Elliott in 2022 are great examples.

The Playoffs create entertainment sure, but many complain that the entertainment is manufactured entertainment. Rather than just letting the competition play itself out, the Playoffs interject arbitrary rules into the season, and it sometimes crowns Champions who should not have been crowned as such.

It’s also a very complicated system. When taking into account the regular season standings, the win-and-you’re-in, stage points, elimination rounds, and everything at play, it’s tough to follow if you are not a weekly viewer of the series. In other sports, the games may have complications, but they are generally easy to follow with the standings being relatively straightforward.

The Pros of a Season-Long Format

A season-long format puts emphasis on every race equally. No matter if you are on the West Coast Swing in March, Nashville in July, or Phoenix in November, every race is worth equal points with equal bearing on the Championship.

It is also probably the most competitively fair system. Drivers who run well throughout the season are rewarded accordingly, and they end up towards the top of the standings at the end of the season. If a driver dominates a season, then he justifiably wins the championship easily, and if someone consistently runs towards the back, they end up lower in the standings.

The system is also very simple. Whoever scores the most points throughout the season ends up winning the Championship, and the drivers who finish up front at the end of the race end up scoring the most points. Every other motorsport has a system like this, and it’s easy for both new and existing fans to follow and understand.

The Cons of a Season-Long Format

While, yes, every race means the same in terms of points earned, if the Championship is a runaway, the end of the season feels a lot like busywork. If someone has already won the Championship two or three weeks before the season has concluded, then what incentive do people have to pay attention to the final race of the season? It’s tough to sell a 300-point separated Championship battle when football is dominating Sunday afternoon.

There is also the issue with the emphasis on wins. Back in the old “Winston Cup” days and even the early days of the “Chase”, people complained constantly that wins did not mean enough. Multiple times, drivers winning the most races were not champions at season’s end including Bill Elliott in 1985 (11 wins), Jeff Gordon in 1996 (10 Wins), and Ryan Newman in 2003 (8 wins). Newman finished sixth in the standings in 2003 despite winning all those races.

The season-long point system also discourages taking risks because of the downside of losing multiple points. Going all-out for a win gets you far fewer points in most instances than what you would lose if you crashed out. Drivers have to choose whether or not they should go all-out for a win, or play it safe to maintain their points position, which is not as fun to watch.

There are definitely pros and cons to both systems, and it’s very difficult to find a perfect system to determine the season ending Champion in motorsports. It’s not like other sports where two teams play for a win every game, it’s 36+ drivers competing against each other week-in and week-out, and there will always be the argument between those who win races and those who run consistently in the top-5 to top-10 while maybe not winning as much. Is there a happy medium somewhere, or is the current system fine as it is?

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Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

All Posts