Written by Gabriel Tsui, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
The NASCAR playoff format has been a topic of controversy within the community, some fans believing that the format of a full regular season, similar to that of Formula 1, would be more beneficial to determine a deserving champion. Conversely, some fans believe the playoff format brings more uncertainty as to who would win the championship, and keep entertainment at the highest level even at the end of the season.
While NASCAR themselves may not look to change their plans of the playoffs season format, let’s discuss how the two vastly different formats will lead to different results in multiple aspects of the sport, and the upsides and the downsides of both formats.
The playoffs format has been in force since the 2004 season, and was intended to generate more interest from the middle to the end of the season, to compete for viewership, thereby generating more revenue. The format was expected to make the races closer to the playoffs more interesting, with the drivers willing to go big or go home.
For example, one of the most exciting moments of the season was undoubtedly Ross Chastain riding the wall for a ticket to the Championship 4, the most prolific example of late excitement and drama. Another instance was Christopher Bell running away with two clutch wins in the Round Of 12 and Round Of 8 to advance to the next stage. These are some of the upsides of the playoff format.
However, on the other hand, as we have seen in the 2022 season, putting too much emphasis into winning and one-off performances denies the hard work of drivers performing consistently.
Going into Daytona, the final race of the regular season, the drivers performing consistently, but couldn't get a win, such as Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. were in danger of falling out of playoffs. In the end, Austin Dillon got a win with Tyler Reddick having one of the best defensive performances behind Dillon, which led to Truex Jr. missing the playoffs by a mere couple of points.
Another example would be Chase Briscoe, missing out on a spot in the Championship 4 following Chastain’s Hail Mary move. These are all prime examples of how the playoffs format hurt consistent drivers.
The other format up for discussion is the regular season format, similar to F1 and IndyCar, the driver scoring the most points in a season wins the drivers championship. This format is utilized in almost every non-NASCAR championship, intended to crown the most consistent, the best driver on the field.
This format certainly promotes consistent driving, and past years in Formula 1 too support the claim. Be it the seven years of Mercedes dominance, or Max Verstappen’s dominant 2022 season, all of these champions were top performers of the field. Should there be two or more drivers performing at a high level, competing for wins and points week in week out, similar to the 2021 F1 season, they certainly have the potential to make a championship season more interesting for the fans.
However, historically, not every year sees championships going down to the wire. Especially in NASCAR, where the regular season has been dominated by one single driver. Chase Elliot in 2022, Kyle Larson in 2021, and Kevin Harvick in 2020 are all recent examples of dominant regular season drivers.
When a single driver dominates the entire championship, fans are going to get bored, and fewer viewers will tune in for races at the end of the season. This will lead to less money being made by the organisation, and less viewership money distributed to the teams.
These are some of the pros and cons of both types of season formats. Playoffs maximise profit gain and late excitement, and the regular season format maximises the competitive side of the sport. For now, NASCAR doesn’t have to fix something that’s not broken, but they must prepare for a change, should it fail in the near future.