NASCAR fans can finally end the ridiculous Kyle Larson debate

There never should have been a question regarding whether NASCAR should grant Kyle Larson a waiver for the 2024 Cup Series playoffs.
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Kyle Larson missed the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there has been an ongoing debate about whether NASCAR should grant him a playoff waiver.

Larson, who was attempting to become just the fifth driver to attempt the Memorial Day Double, opted to stay at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and compete in IndyCar's Indy 500, even after rain pushed back the start of the race by four hours.

That decision ensured that Larson would not be able to get to Charlotte in time for the start of the Coca-Cola 600, so Justin Allgaier filled in for him behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Larson made it to Charlotte after 249 of the scheduled 400 laps around the four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) Concord, North Carolina oval had been run, but the race had just been red flagged due to rain.

Though the track was in the process of drying, NASCAR decided to call the race, and Larson did not get to compete, making him just the second driver ever to see a Memorial Day Double attempt end with a start in only one of the two crown jewel races.

As a result, Larson lost the ability to compete in all 26 regular season races, and drivers are required to do so to retain playoff eligibility.

That is where the NASCAR playoff waiver system comes in.

Given the wide range of reasons why drivers have been granted playoff waivers in the past, it seemed like a sure thing that the 31-year-old Elk Grove, California native would get one.

But after more than a week passed following Hendrick Motorsports' waiver request, NASCAR had not yet made a decision. Additionally, they removed Larson's 17 playoff points from the playoff standings, indicating that he was ineligible for the playoffs and thus the championship.

Larson had scored 17 playoff points this season thanks to his two wins (five playoff points each) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, wins which presumably secured him his fourth consecutive playoff spot, and his series-leading seven stage victories.

So despite the fact that he still finds himself in second place in the point standings, even after missing a race, there was a very real possibility that NASCAR could exclude him from the postseason entirely.

However, NASCAR finally decided on Tuesday to grant Larson the waiver after all.

All things considered, the decision brought an end to a completely unnecessary and overblown debate about whether or not he should be given one.

There is zero doubt that the right call was made. There is also zero doubt that it should not have taken this long.

The 26-race rule is in place to prevent a part-time driver from "stealing" a playoff spot by winning a race while running a limited schedule. It's why A.J. Allmendinger wasn't in the 2021 playoffs, despite the fact that he won the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

It's also in place to ensure that full-time drivers can't execute any sort of "load management" and pick and choose the races in which they'd like to compete. This, in turn, gives fans the assurance that they will get to see their favorite drivers when they purchase tickets.

Like the many unexpected (and waiver-warranting) absences before Larson's, his missed Coca-Cola 600 start had nothing to do with any of that.

His Memorial Day Double attempt had been in the works for years, and it had officially been on the schedule since Arrow McLaren, through a partnership with Rick Hendrick, announced that he would compete for them in this year's Indy 500 back in January 2023.

It was never Larson's intention to sit out of the Coca-Cola 600. Yes, he did decide to prioritize the Indy 500 after the rain delay, but even with that in mind, he still showed up to Charlotte with more than enough time to finish the race before NASCAR made the relatively confusing decision to call it a night.

Though fans didn't get to see him compete at Charlotte, he promoted motorsport that day in a way that no driver had done since Kurt Busch in 2014.

If Larson's last-minute decision to prioritize the Indy 500 over the Coca-Cola 600 had cost him a spot in the Cup Series playoffs, the decision not to grant him a waiver would have been made for nothing more than spite toward IndyCar.

Why? Because the argument that prioritizing another race sets a bad precedent is and always was silly.

Fortunately, it didn't come down to that.

We're not talking about him skipping a Cup Series race to run a dirt race or some local go-kart tournament. We're talking about the Indianapolis 500, the biggest race in the world. Until half the Cup Series field starts showing up on Indy 500 Bump Day, there is no precedent even remotely close to existing.

Drivers aren't just going to start skipping races to compete elsewhere. The Indy 500 is not "just another race".

Plus, Larson already paid the price for not competing. He gave up the points lead, which he had held since the race at Martinsville Speedway in early April, and he also gave up the opportunity to score up to eight more playoff points, the most in any race on the schedule.

And let's not forget that drivers can score additional playoff points based on where they finish in the regular season standings. So Larson skipping the Coca-Cola 600 could end up coming back to bite him even more so down the road.

With playoff points being such a big deal, Larson obviously did not want to give up those opportunities, and nobody else is going to willingly do so either.

There is no bad precedent here.

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It never should have taken NASCAR this long to make the decision, but fortunately they made the right one, and to their credit, that's what matters most. Removing Larson from the playoffs entirely would have been way too extreme -- and totally shambolic.