NASCAR Mailbox: Is the Playoff Comparison to Other Sports Fair?

The playoff format for the last seven years in the NASCAR Cup Series has drawn comparisons to several other sports, which is not what many fans want to happen at all. With NASCAR, which had a unique playoff format from 2004-13, nobody really ever compared the sport to others. When the sanctioning body established the current system, which gifted winning over consistency, there drew the comparisons.
Is this fair, or should people stop comparing other sports even with the format? Why is NASCAR still different than others, even with winning being rewarded more?
After winning at Martinsville Speedway to advance to the Championship 4, Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are bringing a lot of momentum with them. Gustafson, in particular, knows how this deal is, having been in this position once before with Jeff Gordon in 2015. He has led several drivers to wins and near championships and has established himself as one of the top crew chiefs in the sport.
Even with some questionable decisions over the years, is he worthy of being compared to some of the best crew chiefs of the past decade? Is his career on the box more impressive having won with several top drivers versus only one? Will Elliott and Gustafson become a dynamic duo for a long time to come?

Q: NASCAR has been seeing a lot of comparisons to some stick-and-ball playoff formats with Kevin Harvick’s elimination. Is it fair to compare, or should NASCAR try and remain as unique as possible? Justin G., Tulsa, OK

A: I have always been one to say that NASCAR should be a unique entity. It was never one to be compared to any regular stick-and-ball sport like football, basketball or baseball. The playoffs have created this sense of drama and entertainment, and while it seems like it works for our sake, the ratings have seemed to suffer the last few years with the system.
Is it good for the sport to have this type of system though? There are definitely pros and cons, but it is more positive than negative. Of course the regular season champion missing the Championship 4 in two of the three national touring series is not a good look, but it is part of it. Harvick and Austin Hill both had bad luck in the Round of 8, leading to bad results when they needed to be their absolute best.
When NASCAR first established the playoffs back in 2004, many fans were opposed, and it created a weird vibe across the NASCAR fan base. Personally, I did not watch the sport pre-playoffs, so I’m not sure what the feeling was of crowning a season-long champion. The playoff format from that year until 2013, though, seemed like it was unique enough to be considered good and exciting.
The change in 2014 was something many fans and media questioned, but when you look back now, it was created for this entertainment factor. Sunday (Nov. 1) at Martinsville was a prime example of what this format is created to do. Many people were frustrated, but it made for one of the most dramatic and exciting races we have ever seen in the playoff era.
The downside to this is that comparison to other sports. Racing should never be compared to others. Playoffs do not happen in any other form of motorsports, and it works. NASCAR is the most popular form of motorsports in the United States, and to keep that up, they need to have this system. Ratings may come back if you change it back to a 2004-like playoff system, but you would not know that until it happens, if it happens.
We have to look at the positives that NASCAR has with this system at the moment. Even if it means a driver with the most wins does not get to race for a championship at season’s end, that is the nature of the game. Most years, this is a non-issue. The system is here to stay from the looks of it, and it has definitely given us some of the best playoff moments we have ever seen.
The Phoenix Raceway race this weekend will most likely be one for the ages, and here is the thing, without the format, this race could potentially mean nothing. Now, we have a race for the title, and while some may think this is not how it should be, surely it is exciting to have this to look forward to.
Q: Could Alan Gustafson be mentioned in the same category as Rodney Childers, Chad Knaus and Cole Pearn as far as best crew chiefs of the last decade, especially if he can win a title with Chase Elliott? Brian K., Daytona Beach, FL
A: As much heat as Gustafson has taken over the years for some questionable decisions, when it comes down to it, he is one of the best in the garage when it comes to being a crew chief for a top-tier team. This is not just based off of 2020 either; it’s based off of his entire career for being on top of the box.
We all know how good Childers has been wherever he has gone or how good Knaus was with Jimmie Johnson. But think about Gustafson and what he has done and who he has been with in his career.
Starting out, he worked with Kyle Busch in his days at Hendrick Motorsports. He brought Busch wins to start his career, and it put Gustafson on the map as far as a crew chief who could be around for a while. When Busch left, Casey Mears was his driver, and while success was not found, he was still in line to get to work with Mark Martin the following season.
Martin went on to win five races in 2009 and damn near captured his first career title. This was among Martin’s best years in Cup, with Gustafson leading the charge. While neither found true success in 2010, Gustafson then moved onto Jeff Gordon, where he had his most success.
Together, the pairing of Gordon and Gustafson was a powerful duo who could have definitely won a championship or two had some things not gone awry at the wrong time. Now with Elliott, he has established himself as one of the best, and he is so far from done.
Elliott and Gustafson both have a chance at their first title this weekend at Phoenix. As a crew chief, Gustafson has 30 wins total with four different drivers. That’s impressive, not only with that amount of drivers, but that he has done it with three different generations of Cup cars.
If Gustafson can capture his first alluded title and continue this success with Elliott for years to come, we might be looking at a historic duo as far as crew chief and driver. They have 10 wins together in Elliott’s first five years, but all of those have come since the middle of 2018, including Elliott’s career-best of four this season.
This is not a matter of if Gustafson is one of the best in the last decade, because he definitely is. He may not get the credit he deserves because of his “missed opportunities” atop the box, but he has surely given his drivers some great chances to win lots of races.
After coming up just short with Martin and Gordon in the past, you know getting a championship would be the biggest accomplishment of Gustafson’s career.

About the author

Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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For me they race the same teams each week, so what does a playoff prove? The old system …the same system that short tracks use reward a driver and team for a season of consistently high finishes.


What he said. In spades. Ratings would suggest that fans are not as enamored of the format at the suits in Daytona.

Tom Edwards

Bingo! I can remember when baseball had the American and National Leagues. The champions of the two leagues would play each other in the world series. Then, all the stick and ball sports adopted the playoff system to determine their champions.

NASCAR actively promoted their method whereby excellence over the long haul was rewarded for being the best. Their argument was that every game was a playoff game, and superior to the playoff systems that other sports enacted/adopted.


Under the old system, Jeff Gordon is a 7-time champ and Jimmie Johnson 5-time. This new system screwed over so many drivers, while rewarding drivers like Kurt Busch with a championship for merely getting hot at the end of the season.


Gustafson certainly builds fast race cars which appears to be his strength. It’s his decisions on the pit box sometimes that leads to a lot of 2nd guessing.


NASCAR’s issues with TV ratings and attendance have nothing to do with the Playoff system. The hard cold fact is that NASCAR has generally failed to replace older fans from the 1970’s and 1980’s with younger fans. As the fan base ages and dies off, NASCAR needs to find a way to appeal to new young fans who generally seem uninterested in motorsports in general. Perhaps it is time to stop bitching about the Playoff or points systems and realize that NASCAR is simply a niche sport, like golf and tennis.


I believe that Nascar drove off the older fans…the ones that would take their kids and grandkids to the races. When the popularity start to hit an upswing, and wanted as much growth and up town exposure as they could get.
Nascar turned their backs on paying fans and paid close attention to the social media set who can voice opinions with never attending a race…and was looking for the next trend.
Then came Brian and we all know that story.

WJW Motorsports

What Jim said. NASCAR can’t “create” or “replace” fans. Life long fans are created by their parents – taking them to the track when they can, and glued to the TV on Sundays when they cannot. Once those folks stop doing those things – as so many have done over the last 20 years – the fan base dies off with no next generation to replace them.


There is some validity to your point and Jim’s. However, I didn’t become a fan because of my parents, so my perspective is different. The same is true of my NASCAR friends.

NASCAR had a surge of interest in the 1990’s with the emergence of Jeff Gordon and the building of tracks outside the traditional Southeast. But NASCAR was unable to sustain the momentum because of the on-track product, not because of any particular points system. The cookie-cutter tracks and disastrous aerodynamic packages drove more fans away than the Playoffs ever did. When the races are boring, people lose interest. NASCAR’s best hope for the future is an improved schedule and a more competitive car. We’ll see what 2021 and 2022 bring.

WJW Motorsports

On that we can definitely agree.. I say often there is nothing wrong with NASCAR that a race at Martinsville can’t fix. Problem there is NASCAR owns quite a few of those failed tracks, and one thing we all know that nobody in the France family has the ability to do is admit they were wrong. I’m personally holding out some hope Ben Kennedy will save us – but I’m sure he is drinking ample amounts of his family’s Kool-Aid on a daily basis. On the new car – i’m hopeful (aside from the single lug travesty) it will be better, but count me amongst the group that thinks the spec car began the decline, and that manufacturers and teams should have the ability again to innovate with what they bring to the track.


I agree that not allowing any innovation…or even options, has not been a good thing. If a team wants to take a chance on using a different gear, why not let them? Innovation was good for racing.


Good points. I would add that in addition to death there is physical, and sadly mental disability as well. I think Nascar has tried to expand its base but without success it appears.
If I had to lay any blame at Nascars door it would the issue of parity. But did they have any choice? Or did the manufacturers demand that?

Regardless they aren’t going to turn the clock back and go back to running Thunderbirds and Monte Carlo”s again.


I’ll believe in NA$CAR’s “Playoffs” when there are 32 teams on the field during the Super Bowl. Maybe.

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