Why NASCAR’s playoff system isn’t really ‘win and in’

Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images) /

NASCAR’s playoff system is often referred to as a “win and in” system, but that isn’t completely accurate, as the start of the 2021 season has highlighted.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season opened up unlike any season in the last seven decades, with two drivers becoming first-time winners in the season’s first two races. Both races took place at Daytona International Speedway, with the first being the Daytona 500 on the oval and the second being the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 on the road course.

Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell secured his first win in 358 starts in the Daytona 500, leading only the final lap following a massive crash.

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Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell muscled his way past Team Penske’s Joey Logano with just over one lap remaining to secure his first win in his 38th career start — and just his second as a Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron became the first former winner to win a race this season, winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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In the 12 races that have been contested since then, we have seen eight other drivers find victory lane.

It took until the season’s eighth race before a repeat winner emerged, with that being Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who won at Phoenix Raceway in March and then at Martinsville Speedway in April. He then won at Darlington Raceway in May, and Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman became the second repeat winner of the year, winning at Richmond Raceway in April and then at Dover International Speedway in May.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson became the third, winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March and then at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

Given NASCAR’s playoff system and the “win and in” nature of it, logic would tell you that all 11 race winners are locked into the playoffs. However, that statement alone holds no water because of the fact that there are 26 regular season races and just 16 playoff spots. So there could easily be more winners than available playoff spots.

We have never run into a scenario where there have been more winners than playoff spots, but it is entirely possible that it could happen, and if it is going to happen, it will likely happen this year with the 2021 season being the final season of the current generation car.

Seven different winners in the first seven races of a season had happened multiple times before. But the fact that neither one of the first two winners had won any race before, which is something that hadn’t happened to start a season since 1950, plus the fact that the first three winners entered the season with just one combined victory indicated early on that we could very well come close to that 16-winner mark this year.

And now here we are with 11 different winners and still 11 regular season races remaining.

There are easily more than five other drivers who could find victory lane at some point before the regular season ends. That brings to the forefront the fact that NASCAR’s playoff system isn’t truly a “win and in” system.

The regular season points champion is guaranteed a playoff berth, whether he wins a race or not. He likely will have, but that in itself isn’t even a guarantee.

Right now, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin leads the point standings — quite comfortably, in fact — and he has not yet won.

Beyond that, the final 15 spots go to the 15 winningest drivers, provided they rank in the top 30 in the point standings. If 16 other drivers have wins, the tiebreaker comes down to points.

If fewer than 15 other drivers have wins — let’s say 11 — then those 11 drivers get in, plus the next four drivers in the point standings.

The only way to truly lock up a playoff spot by winning is by winning at least twice, since two wins is guaranteed to make a driver one of the 15 winningest drivers. At most, there can only be 13 drivers who win multiple regular season races.

So Truex, Bowman and Larson are the only three drivers who have truly locked themselves into the playoffs through the season’s first 15 races. The other eight one-race winners technically aren’t 100% safe yet.

Winning one race helps for sure.

But it’s almost a lock. It’s not a 100% guarantee.

It doesn’t lock up anything unless you can no longer mathematically end up with more than 16 different regular season race winners.

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Will the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season see more than 16 winners, or will the playoff system again fit the “win and in” narrative, even though it technically doesn’t completely line up with that concept? Of the 11 remaining regular season races, four are road course races and one is a superspeedway race, and keep in mind that we haven’t seen Hamlin or Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick win at all yet this year. They combined for 16 wins last year.