Is NASCAR’s Playoff Format Broken?

Photo credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press

In 2014, NASCAR introduced the most cutthroat, drama-filled, intense format to it’s version of the playoffs: a four-round elimination-style grid that has provided us with some of the most memorable moments of the last decade. We all remember when Ryan Newman body-slammed Kyle Larson on the final lap of the penultimate race in 2014 to get the one point he needed to advance to the championship four. We also remember emotions boiling over many, many times, from Jeff Gordon vs. Brad Keselowski to Denny Hamlin vs. Chase Elliott.

Unfortunately, this format has also left fans questioning whether these playoffs are a competition enhancer or nothing more than a gimmick. Fans poured out their outrage and shock on social media after Kevin Harvick was eliminated from this year’s playoffs during the third and final cutoff race at Martinsville after winning nine races, winning the regular season championship and being the favorite to win the championship. Many fans were quick to put blame on the elimination format for Harvick’s elimination, who many argued should’ve easily been in contention for the championship at Phoenix. But is the format really to blame? Is NASCAR’s version of the postseason really that bad? And if so, is there a way it can be fixed?

A Brief History of the Playoff Grid

2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs field set | NASCAR
Photo credit: NASCAR

NASCAR introduced its first version of the playoffs in 2004 in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series (the current-day NASCAR Cup Series) with what was then known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The Chase offered 10 drivers the opportunity to have equal footing going into the final 10 races of the season. Whichever driver accumulated the most points at the end of the tenth race would be crowned the series champion. The Chase received minor adjustments from it’s debut through 2013, including an increase in drivers who made the Chase and a new points format in 2011.

The new points format that was introduced during the 2011 season was a drastic change from years before. The format for awarding points had been rather complex for an average fan to follow, so to engage more viewers, NASCAR edited the format so that each position on track was equivalent to one point (1st earned 43 points and 3 bonus points for winning the race, 2nd earned 42 points, 3rd earned 41 points and so on). Not only did the new format make it easier to follow points, but it also assisted in creating perhaps the most memorable championship battle of the modern era, when Tony Stewart won five of the Chase’s 10 races, including the season finale race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart’s biggest threat for the title, Carl Edwards, went into the season finale as the points leader with just a three-point advantage over Stewart. With Stewart winning at Miami and Edwards finishing second, the two drivers ended the season tied in points. The tiebreaker fell in Stewart’s favor for winning five races during the year over Edward’s lone win of the season in Las Vegas. Stewart was crowned champion while Edwards was left to dream about what could’ve been.

Fans raved about the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup (Sprint had replaced Nextel as the Cup Series’ title sponsor in 2008, and the Chase’s title also reflected this). Stewart’s amazing turn-around from his lackluster regular season, the smack talk between Stewart and Edwards, and the incredible finish in Miami were all thrilling to watch. NASCAR made it their task to replicate the glory, emotion, excitement and drama of the 2011 Chase. Just over two years after Stewart’s and Edwards’ historic battle, NASCAR introduced the biggest evolution to the postseason: the Chase for the Sprint Cup grid.

The Chase grid modified quite a few aspects of the playoffs. Rather than the 10 to 12 drivers who had made it into the postseason in prior years, the grid allowed a whopping 16 teams to be a part of the Chase. 12 of those teams would be eliminated during the playoffs, with four teams being eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races, meaning that only four drivers would enter the season-ending race with a chance to fulfill their dream of being the series champion. After each round of the Chase, which consisted three races each, the points for the teams still in championship contention would reset so that every driver went into the new round on equal footing. Additionally, any teams who won a race in the Chase advanced automatically into the following round. The final round, which has commonly been referred to as the round of four or the championship four, consisted only of the final race of the season, and whichever one of the four teams in championship contention finished the race in the highest position would be crowned the champion.

The 2014 playoffs provided everything that NASCAR was looking for. Tensions boiled over after races at Charlotte and Texas, causing fights to break out in the pits and in the garages. Two drivers were able to escape what seemed to be certain eliminations by winning elimination races. At season’s end, Kevin Harvick, one of the season’s most consistent drivers, won the championship. 

In 2017, Sprint’s sponsorship of NASCAR’s top division ended, and Monster Energy replaced them. With Monster’s involvement in the Cup Series, NASCAR rebranded the Chase for the Cup, now calling it the playoffs. In addition, there were additional modifications to the points system. Each race would be broken down into stages, and each stage would pay out points to the top-10 finishers. In addition, winning a stage would earn drivers one playoff point and winning a race would earn a driver five playoff points. These playoff points would be carried through every round that the driver makes it to (with the exception of the championship four). This was a major change from the 2014-2016 format, where drivers only received their bonus points for wins in the first round. In addition, NASCAR would crown a regular season champion who would receive an additional 15 playoff points. The rest of the top 10 in the regular season standings would also receive allotments of playoff points to carry into the playoffs with them.

What are the problems?

The simple answer to the question “is the playoff format perfect?” is simple: No. Every fan seems to have a different opinion as to what the actual underlying issue is for them with the playoffs. Some argue that the regular season champion needs a bigger reward for their efforts during the first 26 races of the season. Some argue that some drivers lean too heavily on their regular season performance to scoot into the later rounds of the playoffs. In order to understand the problems, we have to examine the past four Cup Series playoffs, starting with 2017, the first year that used stage points.

2017

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 20:  Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 20, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The 2017 playoffs seem to be remembered for the rivalry that was born at Martinsville when Denny Hamlin sailed into turn three, right into Chase Elliott’s bumper, spinning Elliott from the lead. Very few people seem to remember that the championship four that year — Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick — won nine of the 10 playoff races. Truex, the eventual champion, held four of those nine wins and set a record for the best average finish in playoff races of any championship four drivers under the current points format with a 4.3 average. Busch, who finished second in points, had an 11.2 average finish, Harvick had a 10.2 and finished third in points and Keselowski rounded out the championship four with an 8.1 average finish in the 10 playoff races. 

2018

2018 22 1
Photo credit: Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

The year of the “big three” can be remembered with a single statement: three drivers slaughtering the competition during the regular season only to get beat by a driver who flew under the radar almost the entire season until he won his way into the final four, and ultimately won the championship. During the first 26 races of the season, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. collected 17 wins combined. Joey Logano entered NASCAR’s postseason with a single win, which came five months prior to the start of the playoffs at Talladega. During the playoffs, Busch won two races and Harvick won one more race, bringing their season totals to eight wins each. Truex was unable to capture a playoff win, putting his win count to rest at four. And then there’s Logano.

Joey Logano went into Martinsville, the seventh race of the 2018 playoffs and the first of the penultimate round, as a bit of a sleeper. He had performed well in the playoffs, but given the lack of playoff points he started the round with, one slip up would certainly take Logano out of contention to transfer to the championship round on points. He decided that he didn’t want to worry about points. In the closing laps of the race, Loagno found himself in position to win the race and win his way into the round of four. Entering turn three for the final time, he bumped Truex out of the lead body-slammed Truex coming to the start/finish line. Logano crossed the line first and locked himself into the final four with his second win of the year, and three weeks later, he captured his third win of the season in the championship-deciding race.

The top two finishers in the championship race and the points, Logano and Truex, combined for a total of seven wins over 36 races. Kevin Harvick won seven races in ten less starts during the regular season. That seems wrong, no? A guy who wins three races wins the championship over two drivers who each had almost triple the amount of wins? 

In analyzing their average finishes during the 10 playoff races in 2018, series champion Joey Logano actually had the best average finish of the championship four with an 8.6. Truex was second with a 9.1, Busch ranked third with a 10.2, and Harvick rounded out the group with an 11.2 average finish. When you look at these averages, it justifies the outcome of the season a bit more.

2019

Kyle Busch NASCAR championship
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The 2019 playoffs were filled with personality, to say the least. We got a lot of memorable off-track moments with Kyle Busch following the Las Vegas race and a fight at Martinsville between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Some people also remember it because three of the championship four teams came out of Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch all piloted Joe Gibbs Toyotas while Kevin Harvick drove the lone Ford of the four for Stewart-Haas Racing. The championship four drivers combined won a total of seven of the 10 playoff races as opposed to five of 10 from the year before. Hamlin was leading the championship race at Miami before an overheating issue took away his chance for a championship. 

Kyle Busch had an impressive regular season. He captured the regular season championship and the 15 playoff points that go with it, but compared to the rest of the championship four, his performance was the worst. He only won a single playoff race, tied for least playoff wins of the final four. He had four top-five finishes and six top-10 finishes in the ten playoff races, the least in both categories among the championship four. Busch’s average finish in the playoffs was 11, compared to Truex’s 5.8, Harvick’s 5.9 and Hamlin’s 8.9. There was one statistical category which Busch did lead in the playoff races among the four drivers: most finishes outside of the top 15. Had Hamlin not had to pit so late in the championship-deciding race for his overheating issue, Busch wouldn’t have inherited the race lead, and ultimately the race win and championship. Busch had arguably the worst playoff performance of any championship-winning driver since the playoffs debuted in 2004, and somehow, someway, he still left with the big trophy.

2020

Chase Elliot during the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway
Photo credit: Patrick Breen/USA TODAY Network

The 2020 season is still fresh in the minds of many fans, being just a week removed from the season finale, which was moved to Phoenix Raceway for the first time in NASCAR Cup Series history. And for the first time since the playoff grid came into existence, both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch failed to make the championship four. Busch had a lackluster season for his standards, only winning a single race during the year. Harvick, however, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Harvick captured a series-high nine wins in 2020, with seven of them coming prior to the playoffs Harvick also won the regular season championship, which many thought to be a huge advantage. It was… for the first two rounds.

Harvick entered the penultimate round of playoff competition with 67 playoff points and a 45-pint cushion over the elimination cutoff line. Joey Logano, who started the round below the cutoff, won at Kansas and locked himself into the championship four. The following week, Harvick smacked the outside wall on a restart at Texas. The damage wasn’t incredibly severe, and Harvick rebounded to a 16th-place finish. With just one race left to advance to the championship four, Harvick sat pretty with a 42-point cushion over the first driver below the cutoff, Chase Elliott. 

At Martinsville, Elliott became part of Harvick’s worst nightmare. Harvick struggled all through the race, and Elliott leading a majority of the race was certainly no help. Elliott won the race, securing his spot in the championship four, leaving only two spots open for the other six playoff drivers to get in on points. Harvick started the night 15 points ahead of Denny Hamlin and 17 ahead of Brad Keselowski, who suddenly became very vulnerable because of Elliott’s dominant performance. Harvick failed to collect any stage points, while both Hamlin and Keselowski did. Hamlin and Keselowski finished better in the stages and in the race overall than Harvick, which became the final nail in the coffin that Harvick’s championship hopes were buried in. Outrage swept across many fans who took to social media to voice their displeasure.

It seems, however, that many fans didn’t compare Harvick’s playoff performance to those who did make it into the championship four. Season champion Chase Elliott had an average finish of 8.8 during the playoffs. Brad Keselowski had an 11.1 average finish, Joey Logano boasted a 7.6 average and Denny Hamlin ended the playoffs with a 10.4 average. Harvick ended the playoffs with a 9.2 average finish, right in the middle of the four championship contenders. 

What really killed Harvick in the round of eight was the fact that two drivers who were pretty far behind him in points won their way into the round of four. Had Logano not won at Kansas or if Elliott hadn’t won at Martinsville, Harvick could have gotten away with the poor runs his team had at Texas and Martinsville. 

Is there a problem with the playoffs?

Are the playoffs perfect? No. Is there a massive problem with the playoffs like many people have said? I don’t think so. The playoff grid has done exactly what it was created to do: it has created more drama, more of the “game seven” moments, and more amazing moments that fans are sure to remember for years to come.

Like any other topic in NASCAR, not all fans are on board with this sentiment. Many fans have expressed that they want the regular season champion to get an automatic pass into the round of eight or even into the championship four (which sounds like a really, really awful idea). Other people have said that they want the grid eliminated and replaced with an older points format. I’d love for the grid to stay in one of two ways: either restore the grid to the 2014-2016 version where drivers only get their playoff points for the round of 16 reset or reduce the amount of playoff points that a driver can carry into each deeper round of the playoffs. It would demand absolute excellence out of drivers and teams in every playoff race, something that hasn’t quite been the case since drivers began carrying stage points into the second and third rounds of the playoffs.

So sure, the playoffs have kinks and bugs that could and should be worked on. At the end of the day, the rules are the rules. It hasn’t always rewarded the drivers who seem the most deserving, but this isn’t the Winston era of NASCAR, and racing isn’t always fair. Harvick’s elimination from the 2020 playoffs brought light to ‘issues’ in the system but that doesn’t mean NASCAR’s playoff system is completely broken.

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