The 2022 NASCAR season has been one of the most competitive in recent memory. There have been multiple winners, some surprise contenders and new teams taking race victories during the course of the year. The Playoffs are as mixed up as they have ever been, with big names such as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick dropping out early or not making the cut at all. There have been safety issues regarding the next-gen car, but the competitive nature of the season will live long in the memory.
While it is enjoying a highly competitive season, it’s not all rosy for NASCAR. Particularly when it comes to not only safety with the new next-gen car, but the format that the series is taking. The Playoffs have been the way in which the championship is ultimately decided for many years now, with each round whittling the contenders down until we have the final four in the last race of the year. Whoever finishes ahead in that race will win the championship. NASCAR is alone in going with a bizarre playoff system to decide a major motorsport series, and it’s perhaps about time that it went back to a points scoring system.
How The NASCAR Playoff System Works
How the playoff system works isn’t totally straightforward. Part of the season forms the regular championship, the rest forms the Playoffs. If you win a race in the regular season, you lock yourself into the playoffs. You can also accumulate enough points to lock yourself into the playoffs too, but the easiest way is to win a race. Once the playoffs start, you have 16 drivers who can then fight to progress onto the next round of the playoffs and take the fight down to the last race of the season.
The playoffs then take the form of the Round of 16 through to the Championship 4, with the four drivers below the cutoff line eliminated at the end of each round. To advance into the next round you can either win a race in the current round, or simply score enough playoff points with as high a finish in the races as possible. Once we get to the final round, the points for the Championship 4 are reset, turning the last race into a one-off shootout between those four. Whoever is ahead at the flag is champion.
Why The Playoff Format Needs To Be Abandoned
If reading that alone doesn’t convince you that the format needs abandoning, then let’s go into a bit more detail. First of all, the format is rather convoluted. It’s an unnecessarily complex way to decide who can be champion, with a level of complexity that many longtime fans struggle to understand. Then there is the weirdness of having a “Regular Season Champion” which doesn’t really count for anything once the end of the year comes. All people will care about is the driver who wins the championship outright.
Perhaps the biggest problem though is how unfair the format is. Kyle Larson was by far the best driver of the 2021 season, with ten wins and many other good finishes. If he hadn’t won the title, it would have been a bit of an injustice. Kevin Harvick won the most races in 2020, but a bad race prior to the Championship 4 in Martinsville took him out of the playoffs. His season was effectively sacrificed for the sake of the playoff system. On top of that, if you look at the regular points standings, sometimes the season is even more compelling than it is with the playoffs.
How The Format Can Be Fixed
All you need to do to fix the playoff format is abandon it and go back to a points based system. Why the playoff format is even considered a good system by NASCAR is just bizarre, but a lot of it probably comes to the entertainment factor. It’s all about ensuring a driver doesn’t accumulate enough points that the championship wraps up a race or more early, as is likely to happen in F1 this year with Max Verstappen and Red Bull. But sometimes, that’s not a bad thing. It means you have a system that fairly rewards the driver and team who have done the best job all year. NASCAR is alone in not rewarding that.
A Flawed Format That Needs To Go
There is no doubt that the format can guarantee entertainment. But it can sometimes reward those who got lucky, and put unnecessary pressure on drivers to push harder in races when they perhaps shouldn’t need too. Thus, the question of safety is once again raised. If Kyle Larson had wrapped up the 2021 title early, that would have been no bad thing. He did the best job across the season as a whole. He deserved it. Let’s hope that NASCAR one day does decide that you don’t have to manufacturer entertainment to guarantee entertainment.
Sources: NASCAR, NASCAR On Fox