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The NASCAR Points and Playoff System Explained

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

If you recently watched NASCAR Full Speed on Netflix, you may have some questions about how the NASCAR points and Playoff system works. What are Playoff points? What’s the point of stages? Why do drivers who finish further back sometimes score more points than the drivers who finish up front? Well, we are here to explain the NASCAR Cup Series points system and how everything works.

  • We will break down all of the factors of the NASCAR points system first. From how drivers score points to how points are distributed throughout the field.
  • We will also talk about the Playoffs. We will look at how drivers qualify, how drivers are seeded, and how they can advance in the Playoffs.

Points

Every driver who is eligible for Cup Series points earns points for every race they compete in. As the regular season (first 26 races) and the Playoffs (final 10 races) go on, driver points are accumulated, and that determines the points standings. There are two ways that drivers earn points, once at the end of the race, and twice after the stages.

End of the Race

At the end of each race, points are awarded in 1-point increments from 2nd to last, and the winner earns extra bonus points. Simply put, the higher a driver finishes, the more points they accumulate.

Second place earns 35 points, 3rd place earns 34, and so on until 36th-40th, which earns 1 point each. The reason for 36th-40th getting the same amount of points is that every race will have at least 36 entrants, but, fields can be as large as 40.

The winner earns 36 points for finishing first along with 4 bonus points for winning. That means a total of 40 points for the winner. Race winners also earn 5 Playoff points, which, we will explain later.

Stages

Every NASCAR race has stage breaks during the middle of the race. Most races have 2 stage breaks, but, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte has 3. At every stage break, points are awarded to the top 10 in 1-point increments with 1st getting 10 points, 2nd getting 9 points, and so on until the 10th which gets only 1 point.

Drivers can earn a maximum of 20 stage points per race if they win both races. Winning both stages and winning the race gives a driver a maximum of 60 points. Stage winners also earn a Playoff point, which, again, we will explain later.

Stage points can help a driver if they have a bad day. For example, Brad Keselowski finished 22nd in the 2023 Daytona 500, but, he still scored 32 points thanks to his stage points. That was more points than 7th-place finisher, Daniel Suarez, who scored 0 stage points.

The Playoffs

The system that NASCAR uses to determine its Champion is through the Playoffs, which consists of 16 drivers. The Playoffs are the final 10 races of the season after the 26-race regular season. Here, we will explain everything about how the Playoffs work, and how the normal points system factors in.

How Drivers Qualify

The Playoffs function similarly to an elimination-style bracket in other sports. Drivers can qualify for the Playoffs in one of two ways. First, they can qualify by winning any race throughout the regular season. If drivers do not win a race, the drivers with the most regular season points accumulated amongst non-race winners fill out the bracket.

In 2023, there were 15 different regular season winners, so, only Bubba Wallace qualified for the Playoffs on points. However, in 2018, there were only 10 regular season winners, so, 6 drivers made it via points. How many drivers make it on wins vs on points varies year to year, but, winning a race is the only sure way a driver makes the Playoffs.

If there are more than 16 winners, then the 16 winners who finish higher in the regular season points standings get the nod. This has never happened before, but, with 15 winners, NASCAR came close in 2023.

If drivers do not qualify for the Playoffs, they can still race in the Playoffs. Sometimes, these drivers steal wins away from Playoff drivers such as A.J. Allmendinger at the Charlotte Roval in 2023.

Playoff Seeding

Once the field has been set for the Playoffs, NASCAR then has to seed the drivers. NASCAR seeds the drivers 1-16 via the Playoff points drivers have earned throughout the regular season. There are 3 ways drivers earn Playoff points.

The first two ways are through winning races and stages throughout the regular season. As we mentioned previously, every race winner earns 5 Playoff points, and every stage winner earns 1 Playoff point.

The last way is based on how drivers finish in the regular season standings. The top-10 in points after the regular season concludes each earns Playoff points. Below is how these Playoff points are distributed amongst drivers.

  • 1st: 15 points
  • 2nd: 10 points
  • 3rd: 8 points
  • 4th: 7 points
  • 5th: 6 points
  • 6th: 5 points
  • 7th: 4 points
  • 8th: 3 points
  • 9th: 2 points
  • 10th: 1 point

These Playoff points are very valuable to drivers as well. Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron tied with 36 Playoff points heading into the Playoffs in 2023, and both tied for the 1 seed.

How Does the Elimination System Work?

After 26 races, the 16 drivers who qualify for the Playoffs have their points reset and are seeded. The NASCAR Playoff consists of 4 rounds: Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8, and the Championship 4. After each of the first 3 rounds, points are reset and 4 drivers are eliminated until the Championship 4.

Drivers can earn their way into the next round through 2 ways. The first way is winning. Any non-eliminated Playoff driver who wins a Playoff race automatically advances to the next round.

The remaining spots are filled out by the points standings Drivers who earn the highest combination of driver points in the round on top of Playoff points earned during the season fill out the remaining slots. The higher-seeded drivers who come into the round with extra bonus points have an advantage as a result because they already have Playoff points that put them ahead of the lower-seeded drivers.

Driver’s Playoff points carry over into subsequent Playoff rounds, but, drivers can also earn more Playoff points up until the Championship 4 via winning races and stages. For example, William Byron earned an extra 5 Playoff points at Texas in 2023 by winning there in the Round of 12, which gave him 41 Playoff points for the Round of 8.

The Championship 4

Once the Round of 8 concludes, the Championship 4 is set, and this is where it gets very simple. The highest-finishing driver amongst the Championship 4 contenders wins the Championship. Championship 4 drivers are not eligible for stage points, so, it is only about finishing position.

Throughout most of this format’s history, the Championship winner has won the final race, but, that changed in 2023. Ryan Blaney won the Championship despite finishing 2nd to Ross Chastain because Chastain was not a Championship 4 driver. It was the first time since this format was implemented that the Championship winner did not win the final race.

This is the complete breakdown of how the NASCAR points system works. While running well throughout the season is important, the largest emphasis is on winning races. Those who win reap the largest rewards.

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Joshua Lipowski

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