NASCAR playoff flaw is very close to being exposed

Cup Series trophy, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Cup Series trophy, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

With 13 different winners so far this year in the NASCAR Cup Series, the playoff format could force top drivers to miss the postseason.

Tyler Reddick became the 13th different winner of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season when he took the checkered flag in last Sunday’s race at Road America. He also became the fifth driver to record a maiden victory this year.

Even with eight races remaining before the playoffs, the long list of regular season winners is already tied for the most that the series has seen since implementing a knockout-style playoff format in 2014, which moves the format closer to having a notable flaw exposed.

In the Cup Series playoff standings, full-time drivers with a win are slotted ahead of non-winners, as long as they are in the top 30 in the regular season point standings.

If there are fewer than 16 winners, the remaining spots are awarded to non-winners in order of regular season points. Only the regular season champion is guaranteed a playoff spot, if winless.

NASCAR has never been in a position where a race winner did not make the postseason under this format. In fact, NASCAR has never been in a position where the playoff field was made up entirely of race winners, either.

Since Reddick became the 13th different winner, there are still three spots available for winless drivers. Those spots are currently held by Ryan Blaney (second in points), Martin Truex Jr. (seventh), and Christopher Bell (eighth).

While there are still three spots available on points, the upcoming schedule features multiple races at “equalizer” tracks, increasing the potential for more drivers to find victory lane.

With 13 different winners in the season’s first 18 races, there is good reason to believe that the parity will continue in the final eight events before the postseason.

This coming Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will feature superspeedway-style pack racing, thanks to the track’s offseason repave and the package that NASCAR will use for the event. That style of racing was on display earlier this year when William Byron won at the track on Sunday, March 20.

With Daytona International Speedway set to host the regular season finale, there are essentially two superspeedway races still to come. There are also two road course races, one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and another at Watkins Glen International, plus one short track race at Richmond Raceway.

These tracks are traditionally known as “equalizers”, as individual speed means less, and driver skill means more. That would seem to open the door for new winners.

Michael McDowell sits in 21st place in the point standings, but he has the third best average finish in the last five races (10.0), leading 34 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and finishing inside the top eight in three races during that stretch.

He has a reputation for being a good road course racer and owns an Xfinity Series win at Road America. Additionally, his lone career Cup Series win came in last year’s Daytona 500. So McDowell could win his way in.

Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Bubba Wallace are all past superspeedway winners as well, and all have shown speed at times this year. Chris Buescher has a pair of top six finishes in the last three races. Each driver is still searching for win number one of 2022.

As the NASCAR Cup Series creeps closer to 16 winners, the possibility of top drivers missing the postseason moves closer to reality.

The highest ranked winless driver is currently Blaney, who sits second place in the point standings, 33 points behind Chase Elliott.

Blaney is having a consistent season, with a 12.2 average finish (third best in the series). He is tied for the most stage wins (five) and has led at least one lap in all but three events.

He is posting some of the best results and deserves a spot in the playoffs, but he could end up missing the postseason if he is unable to win a race or score enough points to win the regular season championship.

Truex, Bell, and Kevin Harvick are other notable names whose playoff hopes could be in jeopardy. All three should definitely have multiple chances to reach victory lane before the playoffs, but they could be in trouble if they don’t.

While a benefit of the playoff format is the emphasis on winning, it also discredits consistency on its own, so a tweak to the format should be looked at.

Imagine if three drivers in the top eight of the regular season points standings don’t make the playoffs. They have been among the eight most consistent drivers all season, but they would lose their chance at a championship in favor of drivers who have had worse seasons but happened to find victory lane.

Denny Hamlin has just four top 10 finishes, but half of those happen to be wins. Chase Briscoe also has just four top 10 finishes, with one early victory.

Hamlin, Briscoe, and Austin Cindric combine for just two more top five finishes than Blaney, and they each rank at least 12 positions behind Blaney in the point standings, yet they could make the playoffs over him.

The debate about fairness has existed since the first version of the playoffs was introduced in 2004. Ultimately, the playoffs do create more excitement and put NASCAR in line with other major sports, so it’s not the end of the world if the driver with the best overall season doesn’t win the championship.

The problem with this flaw is that it has to do with simply getting the opportunity to compete for a championship. Surely there should be a better balance between emphasizing wins and consistency to be in title contention with 10 races to go.

A possible solution could be for any driver in the top five in points to be guaranteed a spot, even if winless. This tweak would still award more than two-thirds of the spots to winners while ensuring that the most consistent finishers aren’t punished if they fail to collect a trophy.

While only Blaney would be in a position to benefit from such a change at the moment, Truex and Bell would both also have automatic playoff spots within reach.

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Whatever the solution, NASCAR should strongly consider updating the playoff format to avoid what has become a growing possibility this season: top drivers in the standings missing the postseason.