NASCAR finally avoids giving itself a major black eye

It may have taken longer than a week, but NASCAR finally made the obvious call to allow Kyle Larson to retain his Cup Series playoff eligibility.
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After Kyle Larson didn't compete in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports requested that he be granted a playoff waiver by NASCAR.

Larson had initially planned on competing in the 400-lap race around the four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) Concord, North Carolina, but bad weather in two locations prevented that from happening.

The 31-year-old Elk Grove, California native entered Memorial Day Sunday attempting to become just the fifth driver to ever attempt the Memorial Day Double, competing in both IndyCar's Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

A four-hour rain delay at Indianapolis forced him to make a decision: skip the Indy 500, or show up late to the Coca-Cola 600. He chose the latter, and Justin Allgaier filled in for him behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

After finishing in 18th place in the Indy 500, Larson flew to Charlotte and arrived with 151 laps remaining. But NASCAR had halted the race due to rain, and though the track was drying, they opted to end it after 249 laps.

As a result, Larson did not get to compete, making him just the second driver ever -- and first since 1995 -- to see a Memorial Day Double attempt end with a start in just one of the two crown jewel events.

Kyle Larson playoff waiver saga

Larson had already done more than enough to secure his spot in the 2024 Cup Series playoffs, winning the races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway earlier in the year. He also led the point standings heading into the Coca-Cola 600.

But drivers must compete in all 26 regular season races in order to remain eligible for the playoffs, and that went out the window for Larson when he missed the Coca-Cola 600. He was officially ineligible for the playoffs, and thus the championship, unless NASCAR granted him a waiver.

Given the wide range of reasons why waivers have been granted in the past, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Larson would get one. But after more than a week passed, and after NASCAR removed his playoff points from the playoff standings, it became a very real possibility that he wouldn't get one.

But NASCAR finally made the obvious right decision and granted him one.

Barring anything unforeseen over the course of the regular season's final 11 races, Larson is locked into the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and all 17 of his playoff points (10 thanks to his two wins, seven thanks to his series-leading seven stage wins) have been reinstated.

Though the wait was entirely unnecessary, NASCAR avoided giving itself a black eye by making the right call.

The 26-race rule is implemented for two reasons. First of all, it is designed so that full-time drivers can't pick and choose which races to run. It's effectively a "load management" safeguard and a way to ensure fans who buy tickets that their favorite drivers will compete in each race.

And secondly, it's designed so that a part-time driver can't "steal" one of the 16 playoff spots with a win in a limited schedule. For example, A.J. Allmendinger won the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2021, but he didn't clinch a spot in the playoffs.

Larson missing the Coca-Cola 600 had nothing to do with either reason.

While he did decide to stay at Indianapolis, thus ensuring he would miss the start at Charlotte, he did secure a starting position by qualifying for the race on Saturday, and he did show up with more than enough time to compete.

It was never his intention to miss the race, and though he prioritized another race over a NASCAR race, it's not like we're talking about some local go-kart tournament; it's the Indianapolis 500, the biggest race in the world.

When it comes down to it, bad weather at both locations and a baffling decision by NASCAR to end the Coca-Cola 600 more than 200 miles before the checkered flag was initially scheduled to fly were what ultimately kept him from competing at Charlotte.

Given past waiver decisions, that should have been more than enough reason to grant him one on the spot.

If NASCAR would have decided to effectively exclude Larson, who still sits in second place in the point standings, from playoff consideration under those circumstances, it would have been a major black eye for the sport.

It would have been a shambolic decision on many levels after Larson promoted motorsport in a way that no driver had done since Kurt Busch in 2014.

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Fortunately, the right call was finally made, bringing an end to a crazy saga of uncertainty surrounding Larson's championship eligibility for 2024.