Does NASCAR need stricter criteria for the playoffs?

Michael McDowell, Daytona 500, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Michael McDowell, Daytona 500, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Michael McDowell’s victory in the 2021 Daytona 500 will essentially guarantee him a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, as long as he is in the top 30 in points. But should drivers be required to be higher in points to qualify for the postseason?

Since the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs debuted in 2004, they have undergone many changes, and with every change comes criticism from fans and drivers alike.

From 2004 to 2006, the playoffs featured just 10 drivers. The standings were set by regular season finishing order. The top driver would get 5,050 points, second place would get 5,045 points, and the points would drop by increments of five until they got to 5,005 points for 10th.

The number of drivers was upped to 12 in 2007 when NASCAR attempted to place more of an emphasis on winning. Drivers were awarded 10 bonus points for each win.

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The format changed slightly in 2011, when the 11th and 12th playoff drivers were determined via a wild card system, where the two drivers placed between 11th and 20th with the most wins were given the final two playoff spots.

The current playoff format is all about winning. Any drivers who win in the regular season are automatically locked into the playoffs as long as they maintain a top 30 position in the championship standings going into the playoffs.

But is a top 30 position too lenient to be letting winning drivers in the playoffs?

In the first year of the 16-driver playoff format, 2014, we saw five drivers who were not in the top 16 win their way in. Those drivers were Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and A.J. Allmendinger. While Hamlin was able to advance all the way to the Championship 4, Kurt and Kyle Busch could only make it round of 12. Allmendinger and Almirola were eliminated in the round of 16.

The biggest debate here is whether those drivers did more than the drivers they essentially prevented from making the playoffs. Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon were the drivers who missed out on the postseason despite being top 16 in points.

Larson scored 343 points in the playoffs, besting the five drivers that won their way in, including Hamlin’s 328 points. Had Larson qualified for the playoffs, he would’ve finished in seventh place in the standings as opposed to 17th.

The 2015 season had some unforeseen circumstances. Only one driver outside the top 16 made the playoffs. That was Kyle Busch, who missed 11 races after breaking his leg in the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch went on to win the championship, but it’s a hotly debated to this day whether he really deserved it. He performed like a champion when he was competing, but does 25 great races trump 36 good races? That’s a debate for another day.

Chris Buescher and Tony Stewart used clutch wins to make the 2016 playoffs. Buescher was 29th in the point standings when the playoffs started. Stewart wasn’t much higher in 27th. Stewart did miss the first eight races of the season due to an offseason injury.

Buescher scored just 166 points in the playoffs while Stewart scored 208. Neither driver made it to the round of 12. Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, the two non-playoff drivers who finished the regular season in the top 16 in points, scored 265 and 262 points in the 10 playoff races, respectively.

The 2017 season was the first season in which NASCAR used stage points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kasey Kahne, and Austin Dillon all made the playoffs from outside the top 16 in points.

The real difference with this season is the fact that Stenhouse had two wins. He qualified for the round of 12, while Kahne and Dillon were eliminated in the round of 16.

Joey Logano, who actually won in 2017 and finished the regular season in the top 16 in points, had his win encumbered because of a penalty and missed the playoffs. He outscored Kahne by 85 points and Dillon by 59 points in the playoffs.

The following season saw Dillon making it into the playoffs from 18th place in the point standings. He actually scored three more points in the playoffs than Ryan Newman, whom he made it in over thanks to his Daytona 500 win.

The 2019 season was the first season in which the top 16 regular season drivers all made the playoffs. Dillon and Cole Custer jumped into the playoffs with wins in 2020. Custer was the first driver since 2016 to make it from outside the top 20 in points.

Since stage racing has come into the sport, it has become a lot harder for drivers lower in the playoff standings to make a run at the championship.

Chase Elliott won his first championship in 2020 after opening up the playoffs 37 points back from the top driver, and that is the farthest point back from which a driver has ever started the playoffs and won the championship. And even that took wins in the final two races of the season to pull off.

Under the current format, I do believe a driver should have to be at least in the top 20 of the final regular season point standings to qualify for the playoffs, even with a win. No disrespect to drivers such as Cole Custer, Chris Buescher or now Michael McDowell, but I don’t think anyone expected/expects them to compete in the postseason.

Over the years, we’ve seen multiple drivers miss the playoffs but outscore the drivers who replaced them — and by a lot.

I can’t see a driver from outside the top 10 making a run at the championship with how playoff points are now. It’s so hard to come from behind unless the top contenders have major problems. Unless you go on a run like Tony Stewart did in 2011 with five wins in the playoffs after a winless regular season, I don’t think you can win a championship from that far back.

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We’ll just have to wait and see if NASCAR is open to changing their playoff format yet again.