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Waid’s World: NASCAR’s Playoffs Aren’t Perfect For Sure – But Don’t Expect Things To Change

While I am fairly certain that most true NASCAR fans don’t begrudge the fact that Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Cup Series championship, I am sure there are those that maintain he earned it through a playoff format that is faulty at best.

Several fans who do not support a playoff system told us what, in 2020, was the most glaring problem. Kevin Harvick won seven races during the regular season – which ended just before the 10-race playoffs began – and two of the first three playoff races, yet failed to make it to the Championship 4.

Rather than rehash the reasons Harvick didn’t make it, that he was left out raised a singular complaint: How is it that the driver who won more races than any other driver and was atop the point standings when the regular season ended was not eligible to win the title?

It was suggested the contenders for the championship should be the top four in points before the final event and the regular season champ if he is not otherwise eligible.

Interesting concept, for sure. And it’s one supported by many, including several current and former NASCAR competitors.

As the regular season champion, Harvick did indeed make the playoffs. And he almost made it to the final round. A 17th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway, a week before the finale at Phoenix Raceway, helped knock him out of any chance at a second title.

What happened to Harvick can, and has, happened to any team in any major league sport that has a playoff system.

In these systems, the regular season champ in any league, or a division of that league, indeed makes the playoffs – just like Harvick.

But when the playoffs begin, it’s every team for itself. Doesn’t matter a twit what it did during the regular season. Win or go home.

And as you know, anything can happen in the playoffs. Records mean nothing except when it comes to seeding. From that point, the team with the worst regular season record can knock off the team with the best as long as its eligible for the title.

The team heavily favored to win a championship can be eliminated quickly or, perhaps, lose in the title game. There are all kinds of possibilities, and if you follow any major league sport – baseball, basketball, football, hockey – you know this.

It is what the playoffs are all about.

Admittedly, NASCAR playoffs have a bit of a twist. A driver can advance from one round to another without winning a race. Drivers must have enough good finishes to keep him among the required point leaders who get to move on.

That means there is a scenario where a driver could win a championship without winning a race, such as when Matt Crafton won the the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship in 2019.

NASCAR says that a driver who wins during the regular season all but clinches a spot in the playoffs – that means there is the possibility of a non-winner moving on if he’s got the necessary points.

If that driver is among the top 16 when the playoffs begin, they’re in. If they’re among the top 12 after the first round, he advances. Then a top eight in points means advancement. A top four in points afterward puts them in the finale. They wins the title if he or none of the other three contenders win at Phoenix and the others finish behind him in the race.

Yeah, yeah all of this is highly unlikely in Cup – but certainly possible.

Imagine the howl if a driver won a Cup championship without winning a race.

That howl has been heard more than once in NASCAR, especially during the era without playoffs – when the point system was based on consistency of performance and not so much victory.

In 2003, Matt Kenseth won just one race during the season yet won the championship. On the other hand, Ryan Newman won a season-leading eight races and finished sixth for that year.

That was one reason why NASCAR’s first version of the playoffs began in 2004.

A cry to return to the old point system based on performance over the course of the full season alone has been heard ever since NASCAR adopted playoffs.

It continues today.

I hear it. I understand it.

But that system was flawed, too. For every season that produced an exciting season finale – like 1992 when Alan Kulwicki won the title by 10 points over Bill Elliott in a tense, strategic final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway – there were a dozen or so where the title was a foregone conclusion. The last race of the season meant little or nothing.

I am not suggesting NASCAR’s playoff system is perfect. Nor will it ever be universally popular.

But don’t look for it to go away. That’s not happening.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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“The last race of the season meant little or nothing…” Better to have one meaningless race, then to have 36 of them. Real NASCAR fans know this isn’t the way to go, and it won’t lead to any improved fortunes for NASCAR, ON or OFF the track. It’s the people that compare racing (literally a built-in playoff) to other sports that are eroding away the identity of this once great sporting spectacle. Sticking with something that doesn’t work isn’t a way forward. Just because you love NASCAR enough to not call them on their faults, doesn’t mean that you’re actually helping them. You know when something’s so sad you can’t even look at it anymore?? That’s NASCAR in its current state. If people within the sport actually cared, they would speak up and demand a change. But no one cares! Not as much a the real NASCAR fans do. The “Real NASCAR”, not the ‘ fake one that goes parading around the track these days.

WJW Motorsports

Well said

Bill B

The ultimate howl would come if someone managed to win the first 35 races and came in second on the final race.

“…there were a dozen or so where the title was a foregone conclusion. The last race of the season meant little or nothing.”
What a travesty, the most deserving driver won the championship but fans didn’t get their game 7 moment. The horror. The horror.


The Latford system was fatally flawed in failing to reward race winners at all. The difference between first and second was exactly the same as the difference between 4th and 5th. NASCAR could have attempted to fix the Latford system by giving a hefty bonus to winning drivers, but instead chose to go with the Chase and finally the Playoff system. All have flaws, but every season with the Playoffs has resulted in the winner of the last race becoming the Cup Champion. And all 7 Champions in that era were richly deserving, not a clunker in the lot: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch (2), Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex, Jr., Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.

While the naysayers all pray for the day when a non-race winner gets the Cup Championship, it still hasn’t happened and provides a much more tense and compelling end to the season than the old system did. And the year that the old system accidentally provided a “game-7” moment, a 2-time winner pointed his way to the Championship over two 5-time race winners.

Stop whining. Sports – and life – are not guaranteed to be fair to anyone.

your mother

The difference between first and second in the Latford system was 10 points, while the difference between fourth and fifth was 5, honey. Now the difference between ALL positions is exactly the same, instead of 5, 4 and 3, so even if your bold, stupid and incorrect statement was true, what point were you trying to make?


So wrong, Mom! The difference between first and second was FIVE POINTS. Time for your nap, dear!

For example, in 1992, Alan Kulwicki came into the final race with a 10 point lead over Bill Elliott. Elliott gained 5 points on Kulwicki (who was second) by winning and Kulwicki gained those 5 points back by leading a single lap more to get 5 bonus points for leading the most laps. So they ended the season just the way they came into the last race. In fact, if you were actually right about the 10-point difference, Elliott would have won the Championship by 15 points over Kulwicki with 5 wins versus 2 for Alan.

Check your facts before making a fool of yourself. (That’s how I know you are not my mother. She was a lot smarter than you………..Honey!)

your mother

Wrong again, honey. The difference between first and second was in fact 10 points. Why? Because the winner, by default, would lead a lap, which was not necessarily the case for the second place finisher. If the second place finisher led one or more laps, then the difference was 5 points, but this was not automatic.

You did not prove me wrong. All you did was point out the fact that if the second place finisher led the most laps in a race, he would collect as many points as the winner. So you should feel sufficiently embarrassed by now.


Mom, dear. Please take your meds. You are arguing inanities.

If a driver won 35 races and another driver finished second 35 times, but led the most laps each time, your 35-time winner would lose the championship in the final race if he finished 2nd with no bonus points, 3rd with a single lap led or 4th with the most laps led. Your 35-race winner would NOT be the Champion under the Latford system. Sorry if you can’t follow the math.

The bonus points are entirely separate from the positional points. This all has nothing to do with the inherent flaw in the Latford system which was its failure to put any premium on winning a race. You are indeed embarrassing yourself by arguing an untenable position.

(Now go to the dictionary on your phone, HONEY, and look up “inanity and “untenable.”)

Meryl the Squirrel

Calm down Goober


If there was as much emphasis placed on EACH RACE instead of concentrating on the ‘champeenship’ as soon as Daytona is over, maybe there would be more interest in the first races of the season. Too much emphasis on the last race of the season tends to trivialize the majority of the races. Frankly, I don’t care who wins this specious ‘title’ these days, I just want to see a good, competitive race. And I want to know what happens with ALL the cars in the field, not just the favored few.


Well said.

WJW Motorsports

Scoreboard tells the tale and doesn’t lie. Under that old “fatally flawed” system, tracks were packed and eyeballs were on the TV. By trying to make the “championship” a big deal, when it was almost an after-thought to fans and competitors, they’ve destroyed the races themselves. Now, tracks are ghost towns and TV can’t wait to break away to the local news..


LMAO! Keep telling yourself that, honey. The on-track product was the issue in NASCAR’s decline, not the championship system. If nobody cared about the championship system, why are you willing to defend it to the death? Try to face and accept reality for once.

I’m guessing your favorite color is orange.

WJW Motorsports

Well, sweety, I definitely agree with you it was not the Chase alone (by the way – notice you refer to a race as an “on-track product” – are you a racing fan or a marketing consultant?) that destroyed the sport. Bill is much better than me at listing all the horrible moves they made to fix something that wasn’t broken. I don’t care at all about the system – unless it hurts the races themselves, which it does. Bottom line is still the same – empty tracks and embarrassing ratings. Orange is not my favorite color, but wondering what color the sky is in your world?


The sky is very blue where I am, but I’m sure it is a very hazy and ominous orange in your world.

NASCAR could have satisfied me by adding 10 or 20 points as a bonus to the winner under the Latford system, but it may not have been enough to save the sport. You say NASCAR wasn’t broken, but it was well on its way to being broken. The bump that Jeff Gordon gave the sport was short-lived, and with an obvious need to reach outside of redneck territory and reach a younger fan base as you and Bill B and your ilk died off, the POTB tried some things to hold onto its place. Some worked, some didn’t, but the fact is, except for a brief moment in the 90’s, NASCAR has never been any more than a niche sport, much as you might like to believe otherwise. And good competitive exciting races will always mean more than any arcane points system.

BTW, as you are so concerned with attendance and TV ratings, I’m wondering if you are a racing fan or a marketing consultant….Never mind, marketing consultants are required to have some education.

your mother

Nobody cares, and I seem to not be the only one who thinks you are a bloviating idiot, so congratulations on putting your “intelligence” on full display.


OKAY Boomer! You seem to care since you keep responding to my posts, ineffectively trying to refute my arguments. And this is not a popularity contest. The people who read Frontstretch are old-timers, most of whom want to live in the past, so congratulations on putting your status as an angry bitter old codger on full display. Your time is past. Accept reality.

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