NASCAR’s Playoff system- The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Written by Levi Powell, Edited by Ishani Aziz
In modern NASCAR, the champion is determined in a playoff system. The new system has been in place since 2014, with race stages being added in 2017. Throughout the years this formatting has had pros and cons… so let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Before we go over these, let’s begin with just how the system works. NASCAR is split into two seasons, the regular season and the playoffs. Each race is split into three stages. For the 2022 season, NASCAR has a 36-race season. The first 26 races are the regular season with the final 10 being the playoff.
The three-stage split is such that points are given out only to the top 10 in each stage. The winner of the stage receives 10 points towards the regular season and one point towards the playoffs. Second place in the stage gets nine points towards the regular season (and none to the playoffs), and so forth down to tenth place receiving one point towards their regular season. The final stage winner is the official race winner who receives 45 points and an automatic bid to the playoffs. Second place gets 39 points, all the way down to 36th-40th who receive one point.
The first 26 races are the regular season. This is the part of the season where drivers build as many wins and points as possible. Winning a race or the regular season championship automatically qualifies you for the playoffs. Only 16 drivers qualify for the playoffs each season. If the winner total doesn’t reach 16 in the regular season, it hasn’t happened since this system began, the drivers with the most points and no wins fill out the rest of the 16 team playoff field. The 2022 season may be the exception with 14 winners through 20 races. If there are more than 16 winners in the regular season, the winners highest in points go to the playoffs.
The NASCAR playoffs are the final 10 races and is split into four parts. The round of 16, round of 12, round of eight, and championship four. In the first round, all playoff points earned throughout the season are added to the drivers starting total. This gives a buffer for the first round to drivers who excelled during the regular season. A win in any round automatically moves you to the next round. After three races the playoff field is cut by four drivers until the final race. In the final race, the championship four battle it out, with the highest finisher of the four being crowned champion.
This system does put an emphasis on the actual winning. Winning races means more points in playoffs, which then moves you to the next round, and then closer to the championship four.
In this system every race counts. Consistency still matters, but drivers and teams are now more likely to gamble on a win. It definitely brings the excitement level up when the leader is close on fuel and decides to push for the win instead of pitting very late in the race.
There is a reason to watch the final races. Before the playoff it was common for a champion to be crowned with three or four races remaining. Even when the championship was decided in the final race, it would take a lot of factors for the driver second in points to even have a chance.
The downside is that some undeserving drivers can win the championship. In 2020, Kevin Harvick won nine races and the regular season championship, but failed to make the championship four. That same year Denny Hamlin also won nine races, but finished fourth out of four in the championship race. Kyle Larson dominated the 2021 season with 10 wins, a NASCAR record 20 top five finishes, and an average finish of 9.1. With all that, he needed the fastest pit stop of the day on the final pit stop to help secure the championship win. In 2014, Ryan Newman came up one position short of being champion. In that season he had zero wins.
A driver not in contention for the playoffs can end your championship hopes. The playoffs aren’t like any other sport where only two teams are on the field. In NASCAR, all 40 drivers compete in each race.Playoff drivers are routinely taken out of contention by non playoff drivers, that can be in a crash, a mechanical failure, a caution that bunches the field back up, or even payback from something that happened earlier in the season.
The system can reward dirty driving. Unlike Formula 1 or Indycar, NASCAR is very light on its drivers when it comes to causing collisions. In fact, in most cases there are no penalties at all. It’s understood in NASCAR that if you are a dirty driver that payback is coming eventually. In 2022 alone, there have been three instances of the leader being taken out on the final lap by the driver in second. At Circuit of the Americas, Ross Chastain took out AJ Allmendinger to win his first race. At Bristol Chase Briscoe attempted a dive bomb on Tyler Reddick, taking both drivers out. At Darlington Joey Logano intentionally put William Byron into the wall to win. We know it was intentional because he said it in the interview post race. For all the safety improvements NASCAR has made throughout the years, it’s counter productive to implement a system that rewards dirty and dangerous driving.
Kyle Busch’s 2015 Championship is another perfect example. Busch broke his leg in a crash at Daytona and as a result he missed the first 11 races of the season. Because of the system in place, he went on to win the championship having missed one third of the season. In no other sport would that be possible.
So there you have it, the imperfect NASCAR system that continues to have its ups and downs. Let us know what you think of it in the comments below…