NASCAR: The rumored playoff change that never happened

NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

A rumored change to the NASCAR playoff format early in the postseason era never happened, and fans are still grateful that it didn’t.

After the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series season, a postseason format was introduced for the sport’s top level, and over the years, that format has evolved.

Most recently, the playoffs took on a round-by-round elimination format ahead of the 2014 season, and there has only been one notable change since then.

For the last 10 seasons, a total of 16 drivers have qualified for the playoffs, with four eliminated after the three-race first round, four eliminated after the three-race second round, and another four eliminated after the three-race third round before the four remaining drivers compete in the winner-take-all Championship 4.

The one significant change since then came in the 2017 NASCAR season, when stages were introduced, and stage wins started to count as playoff points.

But one change was rumored for 2006 and never implemented. While many fans, even 19 years after the introduction of the postseason, still complain about the playoffs and argue that they have no place in NASCAR, they remain grateful that this particular change was never implemented.

This change would have introduced a separate scoring system for the playoff drivers, and it would have included only the other playoff drivers when determining the points scored by each playoff driver in playoff races.

Let’s simplify this: say the top three playoff drivers finish a playoff race in first, third and ninth place. Instead of receiving points for finishing in first, third and ninth, they would receive points for finishing in first, second and third, as they were the top three among the playoff drivers.

A Winston Salem Journal article from September 2005 noted the following.

"“There may well be a new rule on points for next year’s championship chase, according to sources who say that NASCAR is considering a separate points system for the 10 leading drivers. Under that this season, Kurt Busch would not have lost as many points for his Loudon crash – Busch was credited with 41st-place points at Loudon, but under the proposed system he would have been credited with 10th place points, and would still be in the hunt.“Of course, under such a new system, the worst finish a playoff driver would be credited with each weekend would be 10th – 134 points, losing at most 56 points to the tour leader. At Loudon, Busch finished 35th and got 58 points.”"

Whether or not this change would still be in effect, had it been implemented in 2006, we will never know, though it is hard to imagine such a change under the current format with stage racing and everything else that is now in play.

Drivers with tons of playoff points would barely need to try in the early rounds, since they would be guaranteed not to lose more than a handful of points to any of their playoff rivals, even with multiple poor results.

Of course, some fans would argue that this is what the Championship 4 effectively is already, since the highest finisher among the four remaining championship contenders is crowned champion no matter what happened in the season’s first 35 races. A driver could technically win the first 35 races and finish in second place in the 36th and not win the title.

And the fourth place finisher among the four Championship 4 drivers, whether he finishes in fourth or 34th, still finishes the season in fourth in the standings no matter how many points he scores.

Fortunately, however, this isn’t the case for the first three rounds of the playoffs. Otherwise, the non-playoff drivers might as well not even be in the race.

There are, of course, some fans who don’t like the fact that non-playoff drivers are in the playoff races to begin with. But because they are, there is no reason for them to be scored any differently than the championship contenders from a regular points perspective; they can’t advance throughout the postseason rounds anyway.

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When will the next notable change be made to the NASCAR Cup Series playoff format? The 2023 season is the 10th season with the current format in use, and the season is scheduled to come to an end this Sunday, November 5 at Phoenix Raceway. Tune in to NBC at 3:00 p.m. ET for the live broadcast of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now!