CHECKERED PRESENT: RETHINKING NASCAR’S PLAYOFF FORMAT

November 21, 2016
Nicholas Patrick

On the Scale of Self-Assuredness (where 0 = Just Spitballin’ and 10 = I’ve Got It!), writer rates this idea as a 7.

Many American sports tinker with their playoff format, hoping to crown the most deserving champion, all while balancing strategy and simplicity, novelty and tradition, and the following considerations:

  • Maintaining the legitimacy and meaningfulness of the regular season
  • Providing short-term urgency during the postseason
  • Setting up an exciting championship event

Many of our favorite team sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, etc.) strive to meet these aims with a standard approach that includes a regular season that whittles down the field of championship contenders to a predetermined number (and where all non-contenders stop participating from that point forward), a bracketed postseason (where each loser stops participating from that point forward), and a head-to-head championship event.

NASCAR has also tinkered with its playoff format, balancing some additional considerations unique to sports whose competitions do not follow a head-to-head format:

  • NASCAR does not necessarily need to predetermine the number of playoff participants or championship event participants (NASCAR elects to do so, anyway)
  • NASCAR must determine how much weight to place on winning (and on merely finishing well, and on finishing poorly, etc.)
  • NASCAR must allow non-contenders to continue participating

Through 2003, NASCAR had no playoff system, instead simply crowning the driver who had accumulated the most points over the course of the season. This system was high on long-term legitimacy of the regular season, but did not infuse any additional short-term urgency into any races or introduce any sort of championship event. The points system is also founded on the philosophy that finishing well is nearly as important as winning – a philosophy embraced by some, but not all, NASCAR fans.

From 2004-2013, NASCAR introduced a ten-race postseason, allowing 10-12 drivers to contend for the championship. Under this system, a predetermined number of contenders were welcomed into the playoffs, points were essentially reset, and NASCAR crowned the contending driver who accumulated the most points over the course of the ten races. This system was an improvement – significantly increasing the short-term urgency of the final ten races, while only slightly decreasing the long-term legitimacy of the regular season, and while presenting only a slight possibility of crowning an undeserving champion. However, while this system increased the likelihood that the championship would be decided during the final race, it did not introduce a true championship event. Along the way, NASCAR placed slightly greater emphasis on winning (when determining playoff participants), but largely continued to embrace the philosophy that finishing well is nearly as important as winning.

Since 2014, NASCAR has allowed 16 drivers to contend for the championship, and chopped the ten-race postseason into four rounds – three rounds of three races each (where four underperforming playoff qualifiers are eliminated after each round) and one championship race – crowning this race’s highest-finishing driver from among the four remaining contenders. This format further increased the short-term urgency of the final ten races, introduced a true championship event, and placed an even greater emphasis on winning (through its selection of original playoff participants, and selection of those who advance in each playoff round). However, NASCAR might have accomplished all of this at a steep price – increasing the likelihood of crowning a champion other than the most deserving driver. In short, this format is too inclusive at the start of the postseason, and too exclusive before the championship race arrives.

For example, NASCAR’s 2016 playoff field included three drivers (Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray) who had not won a single race to that point, and who had no legitimate claim to being NASCAR’s best driver. And while the championship race happened to include only contenders who had won three or more races to that point (Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, 3; Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, 4), it excluded from contention four other drivers who had also won three or more races to that point (Denny Hamlin, 3; Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Martin Truex, Jr., 4).

I propose the following format:

A driver can qualify for playoffs in one of the following ways:

  • Win one race during the regular season, with an adjusted average finish* in the top 10
  • Win two races during the regular season, with an adjusted average finish* in the top 20
  • Win three races** during the regular season

*As a way to account for drivers who must miss races due to injury, etc., five races would be excluded when calculating adjusted average finish for every driver. If a driver:

  • Misses zero races, then his/her five worst finishes would be excluded from calculation
  • Misses 1-4 races, then those missed races would be excluded from calculation, along with his/her 4-1 worst finishes
  • Misses exactly five races, then those races would be excluded from calculation
  • Misses more than five races, then five missed races would be excluded from calculation, and additional missed races would be included in calculation (with a finishing place of 50)

**If a driver wins four races during the regular season, he/she would automatically qualify for the championship race. If a driver wins five or more races during the regular season, he/she would automatically qualify for the championship race and would start in pole position.

The playoffs would include a nine-race round and one championship race (not the mini-rounds used in the current format). A driver can advance from the playoffs to the championship race only by winning one of the nine postseason races (place of finish – other than first place – would not matter during the postseason).

Like the current format, NASCAR would crown the championship race’s highest-finishing driver from among the remaining contenders.

This format would:

  • Be simple, and place an even greater emphasis on winning while still placing some importance on finishing well (no more points system; place of finish would only be considered in the regular season to determine if one-to-two-time race winners have a legitimate claim to be NASCAR’s best driver; in the postseason, a driver must win to advance to the championship race)
  • Be novel (no more predetermined number of playoff qualifiers or championship race qualifiers; these numbers would fluctuate from year to year)
  • Maintain the legitimacy of the regular season (it would be just as important as it has been since 2004)
  • Maintain a high level of short-term urgency during the postseason (but within reason, removing the mini-rounds used currently that so often eliminate worthy drivers from championship contention)
  • Preserve a true championship event (and even enhance the excitement of it, by likely including a greater number of championship contenders)
  • Always crown a deserving champion

Under this format, the 2016 playoff field would have included the following drivers:

  • Kurt Busch (won one race during the regular season, with an adjusted average finish of 10 or better)
  • Kyle Busch (won four races)
  • Carl Edwards (won two races; adjusted average finish of 20 or better)
  • Denny Hamlin (won three races)
  • Kevin Harvick (won two races; adjusted average finish of 20 or better)
  • Jimmie Johnson (won two races; adjusted average finish of 20 or better)
  • Matt Kenseth (won two races; adjusted average finish of 20 or better)
  • Brad Keselowski (won four races)
  • Joey Logano (won one race; adjusted average finish of 10 or better)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (won two races; adjusted average finish of 20 or better)

Under this format, the 2016 playoff field would not have included the following drivers (each of whom qualified for the actual 2016 playoff field in NASCAR) who did not have a legitimate claim as NASCAR’s best driver:

  • Chris Buescher (won one race; adjusted average finish worse than 10)
  • Austin Dillon (won zero races)
  • Chase Elliott (won zero races)
  • Kyle Larson (won one race; adjusted average finish worse than 10)
  • Jamie McMurray (won zero races)
  • Tony Stewart (won one race; adjusted average finish worse than 10)

Under my proposed format, the following drivers would have remained in contention entering the championship race (Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth would have been eliminated after failing to win a postseason race):

  • Kyle Busch (automatically qualified by winning at least four regular season races)
  • Carl Edwards (won at least one postseason race)
  • Kevin Harvick (won at least one postseason race)
  • Jimmie Johnson (won at least one postseason race)
  • Brad Keselowski (won at least four regular season races)
  • Joey Logano (won at least one postseason race)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (won at least one postseason race)

By finishing best among the contenders in the championship race, Jimmie Johnson would also be crowned 2016 NASCAR champion under my proposed format.

Under my proposed format, drivers would always some motivation to win, even after qualifying for the championship race (after all, they would want to increase their chances of winning the championship by preventing other contenders from qualifying for the championship race). Still, I wonder if drivers like Harvick, Johnson, Logano, and Truex (who each happened to win multiple postseason races) would have done so knowing that those additional wins only served to keep drivers like Kurt Busch, Hamlin, and Kenseth (who did not win any postseason races) from qualifying for the championship race. For this reason, I rate this idea only as a 7 on the Scale of Self-Assuredness.