Another season is upon us.
Freshly wrapped cars loaded into equally wrapped haulers depart their respective home bases around Charlotte, North Carolina, and head south to the “world center of racing.” Some with new drivers. Others with the same drivers.
The new NASCAR Cup Series season brings the biggest overall to the schedule in decades; even more than the 2020 overhaul. While two tracks disappeared, four more appeared.
In short, much has changed since the checkered flag flew at Phoenix Raceway last November.
For all the change, however, one polarizing albatross remains around NASCAR’s neck: The playoffs.
Driver thoughts on NASCAR playoffs
No topic in NASCAR divides its fan base more than the method it uses to decide the champions of its three national touring series. Go to any random fan at a race track and ask them what they think of the playoffs. The answers will range from “it’s exciting” to “it destroys any integrity the championship has.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m in the latter camp.
By and large, however, drivers overwhelmingly reside in the former. Their reasons why vary.
Some note its effect on the competition.
“You’ve got to do everything perfect and you’ve got to showcase that,” Austin Cindric said.
“You have to go out there and perform each and every week within what it takes to advance,” Kurt Busch said.
“I think it’s a good way to make sure that everybody keeps performing all the way until the last race is over,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said.
Stick and ball sports
Other drivers point to how in the stick and ball sports leagues, the best team(s) doesn’t always make it to the championship game.
“You can go 15-1 or 16-0 in the regular season in the NFL and not make it to the Super Bowl,” Aric Almirola said. “You can have the best record in baseball and not make it to the World Series.”
“If you look at the Chiefs, (they) very well could have lost to the Browns and had the best regular season and they’re done in one game,” Stenhouse said.
“I mean, if you want to compare NASCAR to other sports, NFL, basketball, that playoff system, it’s not necessarily the team that’s the hottest throughout the regular season,” Austin Dillon said. “It’s the team that gets hot when it matters.”
Which is precisely what happened in 2020.
Let’s do the time warp again
While Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin racked up wins, Chase Elliott lurked behind the bushes, thanks to consistent top-10 finishes in the playoffs and stage finishes that mitigated the points loss from subpar finishes.
Given that he never dipped below seventh in points, you’d be hard-pressed to argue he wasn’t one of the four best drivers last season.
“I think you still see the best guys in the final four the majority of the time,” Erik Jones said.
The championship race gives NASCAR the “Game 7 moments” it wanted with this format.
Case in point, Cindric restarted third in overtime of the XFINITY Series championship race at Phoenix Raceway back in November. Coming down the backstretch on the restart, he’s boxed in by Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson. After they sandwiched him coming to the white flag, he raced side-by-side with Gragson all the way to Turn 3, before he powered by him to win the race and championship.
In that regard, it works as advertised.
“Coming down to one race makes it a little bit more of a wildcard than what it was in the past; even more so than what the traditional Playoffs system was with points over ten races,” Jones said.
While I’ve argued that making the championship race and winning the title are now more weighted on luck, Joey Logano contests this.
“To me, there’s no such thing as luck,” he said. “Roger Penske says it the best, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ That’s just what it is. You’ve got to be good when it matters the most and that’s what playoff sports are about.”
What’s more, as BJ McLeod noted, the many changes to the playoff format since its inception in 2004 demonstrates NASCAR’s willingness to adapt and change, at least when it comes to the playoffs.
“You’ve seen a lot of open-mindedness from their side and the things that they’ve worked on,” he said. “They really want to make the fans happy and you have to accept if you’re a fan that you can’t argue that point right now.”
Ultimately, the playoffs are the status quo and NASCAR’s shown no indication that that’s changing anytime soon. Drivers and teams have accepted the system and all of its positives and negatives, including how exponentially more difficult it’s made winning a championship.
“At the end of the day, this is the challenge we are faced with and you’ve got to make the best of it,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “At the end of the day, the best team wins, no matter how they get there.
“This is a difficult sport. It’s hard to win a single race, let alone, one out of three in each round. I think we know what we are getting involved with.”
“It’s the rules we have,” Ross Chastain said. “We all know it and we all plan accordingly. Whatever series you’re in as a racer, you’re going to examine the rule book and find the gray areas on the car and on the driving and what’s acceptable. So it’s no different with the points. We know we have to.”
“Sometimes the guy that dominated the season has a bad Playoff run in a certain round like you saw last year, but that’s just part of racing,” Alex Bowman said. “Racing has always been that way and stuff happens.”
As the old saying goes, it is what it is.
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