For the first time in the history of the modern NASCAR Cup Series playoff format, the reigning champion was eliminated in the opening round.
The modern-day NASCAR Cup Series elimination playoff format was introduced in 2014, with the only real changes since then relating to stage racing and playoff points.
The reigning champion has made the playoffs every year during that stretch, but this year, a first-of-its-kind scenario unfolded in the round of 16 finale at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Two-time and reigning champion Joey Logano of Team Penske did manage to make the playoffs for the sixth straight season, but his regular season was quite disappointing, with his only win coming in the drafting race at Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March.
That ultimately led to a shortage of playoff points, so when Logano found himself running toward the back of the pack at Bristol and subsequently caught up in another driver’s mess, it ended his chance to become the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson won five titles in a row from 2006 to 2010.
It also made him the first reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion not to at least reach the round of 12.
Over the course of the season’s final seven races, Logano can still technically fight for fifth place in the championship standings. But his primary focus is to use these seven races to improve ahead of 2024, and to do so without the usual pressure that comes with competing for a championship.
That said, he knows it won’t be easy — not just because of the fact that he and Team Penske have had a disappointing season as a whole, but because of the fact that he admits he is a bad loser.
“It depends on what kind of loser you want to be,” Logano told Beyond the Flag. “Do you want to be a good loser or a bad loser? A good loser will take the next several weeks to enjoy it and say there’s no pressure on me.
“A bad loser would add more pressure to himself and say this is ridiculous, and it hurts too much, and we’re supposed to win. I’m a bad loser.”
But Logano knows a thing or two about being a “bad loser” and still taking it and learning from it, having won his first championship in 2018 just one year after not even making it into the 16-driver playoffs.
“I’m really bad at [losing], so I’m naturally pretty mad right now and determined to fix it,” he continued. “[We have] the opportunity to get better. We might be out of this right now, but we’re still able to have the opportunity to get better. So that’s where we’re at.”
Interestingly, Logano has made it to the Championship 4 on five occasions, and all five of those occasions have come in the five even years since the modern playoff format was introduced. He has never made it to the final round in an odd year, and that trend continued in 2023. He hopes it will continue in 2024 as well.