Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Making The NASCAR Playoffs Is Easy? No, Really

Did You Notice? … Only 31 drivers have started every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race this year? That means it’s easier to qualify for the NASCAR postseason right now than almost any stick-and-ball sport.

Let’s explain. To make the playoffs, a driver must start every regular season race unless they’re given a medical waiver. Slots are given to 16 drivers for either their position in points or winning a race, as long as they finish 30th or better in the season standings.

There are currently 31 drivers eligible under those rules. That means each of them has a 51.6 percent chance to make the postseason.

Let’s compare that percentage to the other major sports.

MLB: 10 of 30 playoff teams (33.3%)

NFL: 12 of 32 playoff teams (37.5%)

NHL: 16 of 31 playoff teams (51.6%)

NASCAR: 16 of 31 playoff teams (51.6%)

NBA: 16 of 30 playoff teams (53.3%)

I bring this ratio up because of how meaningless that percentage can make the regular season. While I think the current elimination format has its perks you can also earn a spot as early as February’s Daytona 500. Austin Dillon, who currently sits outside the top 16 in points virtually clinched the second he took the checkered flag in the season opener.

Especially in a year like this one, where the Kevin Harvick/Kyle Busch combo has combined for nine race wins. having 17+ winners is a virtual impossibility. Dillon (along with all five other drivers that have victories this year) could have their tickets punched as early as the July 1 race at Chicagoland.

“Well what about staying inside the top 30 in points?” you might be wondering. The fact there are only 31 eligible drivers virtually eliminates anyone from worrying about that scenario. Add in the few backmarker teams with little, if any chance to win and any driver who reaches Victory Lane is playoff bound.

For fans of those drivers, that means there are months of semi-meaningless races until the postseason starts. Sure, the Harvicks and Busches of the world will be gobbling up playoff points. But the middle-class surprises like Dillon know they can only compete so often against those big guns. Their focus for months will be testing for September so they put their best foot forward when it matters most.

That’s why I think, considering the length of the playoffs (10 weeks, 28 percent of the schedule) we might be better served by cutting back. Let’s look at what the postseason would look like right now if we did a seven-race playoff where the top 12 made it – not the top 16.

Here’s the list of drivers who would suddenly be on the outside looking in: Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Those are high-end names and, at least in Johnson’s case, championship-level expectations. This quartet would all be scrambling to knock off a new duo on the bubble: Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola.

Neither Blaney nor Almirola, who have had promising seasons, would be allowed to sit on their laurels. Each driver has had missed opportunities to cash in on Victory Lane and those mistakes would actually come with consequences. And what about Dillon? The worst performing of this year’s race winners? There would be no testing, just hard racing as chances are high NASCAR will still reach 12-13 individual winners.

And what about the racetracks? We don’t need to open the NASCAR playoffs in Las Vegas. Really, the racing isn’t good enough to justify the pomp and circumstance. Or if we do, switch out with Dover and keep it as this shortened postseason opener. And instead of losing the Charlotte roval, this year’s round one finale, we can switch that with Talladega. That would mean a restrictor plate race ends the regular season instead of making Russian Roulette out of a three-race playoff.

Again, I think part of fixing what ails NASCAR involves increasing the incentives to race hard. If your postseason bid is all but assured (and for many of the sport’s top drivers, it already is) you’re subconsciously on cruise control from now until September.

In this case, NASCAR, less is more. Eliminate a round of the playoffs in 2019, 2020 or whenever they can and that could be the perfect fix for this postseason system.

Did You Notice? … The fact people were obsessed with the real debris caution at Pocono is because there hasn’t been any? 14 races into the 2018 season, just five debris cautions have been called. That’s an average of 0.36 per race, by far the lowest in NASCAR’s playoff era.

Compare that to 2016, the last year before the stage racing format. The first 14 races brought 21 debris cautions, a 320 percent increase over what we’re seeing this year. There was “debris” found in every race but one (Martinsville) while one event had four of them.

I don’t think we’re suddenly having a light year with metal falling off cars, right? It’s clear NASCAR has changed its officiating policy for debris in light of the stage racing format. (I.E. – planned cautions). There’s no need to artificially bunch up the field at any given time anymore when we’re guaranteed two stage breaks a race.

Look, everyone involved in the sport from fans, teams and drivers appreciate the races naturally playing out. I’m fascinated by this statistic simply because it appears to prove what people suspected all along for years. At best, you could say NASCAR was more liberal in bunching up the field for debris when they know the race could go green for 500 miles.

Will that sanctioning body ever admit it? No, never. But the numbers don’t lie.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • Sure, I get it. Kyle Busch failing post-race inspection for being too high is the type of penalty where everyone loses. I agree it’s a detriment for Busch, not an advantage, and the rules shouldn’t punish you for a violation that kills speed on your racecar. But the words “No. 18 car illegal, L1 violation” drive the fanbase absolutely crazy. The bottom line is as the rules were written, the car wasn’t legal, and this Cup driver came and kicked butt in a lower series with it. We’ve seen too much of this penalty stuff this year, and it’s not a good look for the sport. They say, teams, drivers and NASCAR officials are communicating better than ever? Great. So let’s get in a room and fix this problem so the penalty report doesn’t roll out a list of cheaters every week.
  • Johnson’s No. 48 team continues to slowly pick up the pace. But who would have guessed it would take until Pocono(?!) for this team to lead its first laps of the season? Those two laps led on pit strategy may be meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a small step forward for Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and Co. Now, the next three tracks for Johnson are crucial. He’s only got two career wins at Michigan International Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway, a trio of tracks that produced zero top-five finishes for him in 2017. But if Johnson can make it through unscathed, that should lock up a playoff bid in case the 42-year-old does the unthinkable and goes winless during the regular season.
  • Johnson remains 50 points in front of Alex Bowman, the first driver on the outside looking in after Pocono. Bowman’s bad luck has quietly allowed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to sneak by him for the final spot. Also in the mix? Erik Jones, just 12 points ahead of Bowman after his Pocono crash. Integral to all this jockeying for position is Jones’ replacement, Matt Kenseth, who started alongside Jones at Pocono. Since Kenseth joined Roush Fenway Racing last month, Stenhouse has run no worse than 14th while the No. 6 team has gotten better every week. The veteran’s presence, while not showing on track just yet (although 13th at Pocono is pretty good), may be indirectly getting the No. 17 Ford over the postseason hump.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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So Kyle cheated to win in the Busch series. I guess he learned with his Super Late Model. Without checking I’d guess he cheated in his truck. Does the “win” count in his ego trip to 200 NA$CAR wins?


Yeah, read the article Donin. Kyle’s “cheating” made the car slower not faster. Imagine his margin of victory if the car had been legal. If NASCAR ever starts taking wins away, it should only be in cases where the alleged infraction was beneficial to the car’s performance, not where it was detrimental.


Maybe the change made the car handle better. Just because it changes the aero on the car doesn’t mean it handles worse. Maybe it’s a matter of tire pressure which will change the height.


They wouldn’t have done it if it made the car slower. And thats the problem with only penalizing if it makes the car faster, who knows hether it would or wouldn’t.

Bobby DK

None of us knows that. Why have a maximum height then? Maybe taller right front means lower left rear and you go faster.


Every report I have seen says the infraction made the car worse. Similar to the illegal car that cost Mark Martin the championship, when the infraction had no effect on performance.

It’s hysterical that you all jump to NASCAR’s defense when they penalize Busch or JGR, but otherwise you believe NASCAR is a horsesh*t organization that never does anything right. LMAO!

Bill B

IF there HAS to be a playoff, only the top 5 teams in points should be eligible because they are the only ones that have had championship worthy seasons. After that you can make the playoff format anything you want because it’s arbitrary.


I’d think at least part of the reduction in debris cautions has to do with the crash clock. If a team is unable to make repairs that get their car back up to a minimum speed that driver is no longer allowed to cruise around shedding parts all over the track the way fleas leave a retriever puppy fresh out of the lake.


Stop the debate on the playoff system and let’s bring back the season-long points system, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, a la pre 2004. Thanks BZF, that was a real kick in the balls for the fans….


Unless they will eliminate it, just leave the playoff format alone for a while. I think the constant tweaking of it over the past decade is part of what ticks people off about it. Right now, I’m fine with it. Playoff and stage points put a new emphasis on regular season performance, and it is now really hard for dark horse with no wins to make the finale on points alone.

Skyler Lysek

IF NASCAR wants to keep the current playoff system. There is a easy way to make the “regular season” important for the entire 26 races. Give the “regular season” champion a bye to Homestead. That would give the teams a huge incentive for winning the regular season. That would leave 15 drivers racing for 3 spots at homestead then.


Let’s start with Kyle’s car. You can’t assume that a too high ride height made the car slower. “Everyone knows that kills speed” – As a mechanical engineer with lots of aero and fluid dynamics experience I can say unequivocally that the equation is way more complicated than low=fast. Engineer’s are wily, and can find speed in many unexpected ways. Nuff said on that.

Regarding the chase. Here we are nearly 15 years into this chase experience and we are still talking about how to get the chase championship formula “right.” Maybe we should just admit that a wrong cannot be turned into a right, and abandon the failed chase experiment and go back to a real championship.

However, barring that, I think the chase should be limited to the top 12 (or even top 10) and eligible cars must be in the top 15 in points. No medical waivers. And, for Pete’s sake, get rid of the absurd one race championship and at least go back to the formula that gave us the most exciting championship battle of the chase era – 10 races, most points win.

Brian France likes to say he listens to the fans. It is past time for Brian to put up or shut up. Fix the championship, fix the cars, and return us to a legitimate auto racing series.


We’re 30 years into the failed restrictor plate experiment and now NASCAR is expanding it.

There is no way in hell that NASCAR is going back to anything from your so-called good old days, so just get over it or stop watching it. Fact is, the latest iteration of the Chase has given us 4 deserving champions in exciting finales, so the winner-take-all championship formula is here to stay.

Young Americans have no interest in cars or motorsports, so NASCAR will only survive as a niche sport, if at all. There is a reason Ford and GM are going to stop selling cars in the U.S., so wake up and smell the coffee, old-timer!


Many have taken your advice, “Smarter…” they have stopped watching. I don’t fully understand your argument. If young Americans have no interest and the sport is destined to fail, why not cater to the wishes of the group that spent money and time enjoying the sport? I’m kind of a ‘tweener’ age wise and I preferred the purity of the season champion to the Playoffs format personally. In addition, the buying habits of the public will change if or when gas prices get to $4 a gallon. So be able to build cars will be necessary again by the end of the year.


Fully agree Jeff! I am a ME as well and thought the same exact thing!


Jeff and Mack: If you are such geniuses, PROVE that the infraction was performance-enhancing. NASCAR can’t prove it and you can’t either. Just a couple cranky old couch potatoes reminiscing about their former occupations. You can’t even offer a plausible theory as to HOW a higher ride height could be advantageous.


I am a 43 year old “old timer” who has designed cars that are racing in 2018. If kids aren’t into cars then who are all those young looking people at all the local short tracks all over the US and Canada? They sure look like teenagers. I’m glad you like the Chase format. Most race fans don’t.


I agree that a higher ride height is hard to claim will help performance, particularly on the left front. I believe that the cars are now so over-regulated that engineering to an advantage becomes very costly compared with the pre-CoT specs. I’d like to see post race tech eliminated completely. The cost to develop deformable structures with a one race fatigue life is higher than the cost to innovate in the design of all the parts that attach to the structure. Open up the box a bit.


John, you speak truth and common sense.


SmarterThanYo I really feel sorry for you sometimes as you feel the need to personally attack the writers and people who post on here from time to time. I never stated that I was a genius and how in the world do you come across that I am cranky? If you want to get technical I am fine with that. Air can do very different things at speed and assuming that one area of the car was higher than the other then that could direct airflow in different directions than one would normally assume. Which in theory “could” be a potential gain in performance. I never once said that it was a definite enhancement. If a CFD was simulated then your question would be answered. However, I do not have the time to create a 3-D model of a car nor do I have all the specs to perform that. All I stated was that I agreed with someones comment and god forbid that ruined your day. I really do wish you the best and hope I answered your questions so now I am back to my couch potato occupation that I still hold.


SmarterThanYo – Several years ago at Dover, the 48 team devised shocks that held the rear of the car up higher than normal to get the spoiler up in the air more. They dominated and won the race. In post race inspection, the car failed the height measurement several times but after some time the shocks settled back to ‘normal’ and the car passed. The win stood but in classic NA$CAR fashion the rule book was changed to ban these types of shocks. Clever engineering and ‘working in the gray area of the rule book’ – but kind of puts the lie to your “higher must be slower” theory.


Rob – what proof do you have that JGR used shocks like you describe ON ONE SIDE of the car at Pocono? None. I am not saying that it is impossible to be higher and faster, but where is the proof? I don’t really care about the L1 penalty, since NASCAR hands those out like cheap candy, but before anyone suggests stripping a win, I want to see PROOF that the car was faster by illegal means, not speculation by people who never got closer to the car than watching on TV.

I stand by my belief that the NASCAR rule book is a joke, templates and laser measurements should be eliminated and the search for parity should end NOW. The last thing this dying sport needs is to change the results of a race 3 days after the checkered flag flies.

Bill B

So, there is no proof that being higher could make you go faster? Then Knauss and Johnson must have been idiots to purposely raise the rear of the car to go slower. Or, if in that particular case it did make the car go faster, then it is possible for a car to be higher and faster.

If you are saying that NASCAR should have to prove that in the specific case of Kyle Busch, it made the car go faster, why should they? If we know it is possible to make the car go faster if it is higher, then it is easier to just make a rule that says you have to be in the range of x inches and y inches. Then if someone is outside of the range it’s illegal by definition. End of story. NASCAR shouldn’t have to prove if it made the car faster or not, it’s the law.


There’s also nothing in the rule book that says a Level 1 penalty will result in loss of a win. It’s still a win by definition. THAT’s the law you have to live by.

And loss of the victory is the only point I am arguing, not the encumbrance, the loss of points, the fines or the suspensions.


We have been down this road before way too many times. Yes the companies are going away from cars because people prefer SUV’s. But they are still building vehicles, same as they always have. Will they remain the same as they have been ?, no. And to be candid I’m glad that they have progressed. I’m not driving a ’67 Chevelle/Fairlane/Roadrunner today, nostalgia is one thing but they were crap.
And speaking as one who remembers .29 a gallon gas the world won’t come to an end with $3.00 a gallon gas either. People will adapt, and motorsport will have to as well. If it can’t then thats on them.

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