Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: NASCAR Playoffs, Penalties & Paying the Price

Kyle Larson’s win at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday (Oct. 23) set up a playoff twist, but it also underscored an on-track incident that happened weeks ago. One that didn’t involve Larson.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs saw the first shakeup come after the Autotrader Echo Park 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. That’s where Larson’s teammate, William Byron, was penalized by NASCAR for a retaliatory move on Denny Hamlin under caution. The penalty included a 25-point deduction for Byron. The points portion was, however, rescinded by the three-member Motorsports Appeals Board panel that heard Byron’s case.

Those points changed the championship picture entirely. Had the penalty been upheld, Byron and not Larson would have been eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 12. Larson’s win at Homestead would have assured him a chance at a second straight title, something that has not been accomplished since 2010 and has never been achieved under the current championship system.

The reinstated points gave Byron the edge but does set up an interesting scenario. Because the No. 12 did not qualify for the car owner’s title, Larson is still in that hunt and a win at Phoenix Raceway would secure two different champions in 2022, one owner and a different driver.

But while the point deduction and the following reinstatement is a different twist, there have been plenty of penalties that affected the playoffs and eventual outcome.

Penalties during the playoffs, and subsequent questions about their impact began in 2004, as soon as the playoffs began in NASCAR.

After winning the playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a little enthusiastic in his post-race interview and let slip a word that neither NASCAR nor the television broadcast felt was appropriate, and Earnhardt was fined 25 points for that one little word. His appeal was upheld (my, how times change), and as it turned out, there was no effect on Earnhardt’s points finish, he would have been fifth in the final tally with or without the 25 points.

The infraction that came closest to changing it all was a penalty incurred by eventual champion Kurt Busch for an unapproved fuel cell spacer. Had that drawn any point penalty of eight or more points, Jimmie Johnson would have won the title instead.

But even then, penalties played a role in the playoff picture. Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of infractions and penalties that did affect the playoffs in some way. Others incurred before or during the playoffs that did not affect the outcome are not listed.


Jamie McMurray: Docked 25 points and fined for unapproved chassis (greenhouse angle) following spring Bristol

Effect on standings: The penalty cost McMurray a playoff berth. Following the cutoff race at Richmond, McMurray was 11th in points, 15 behind 10th-place Ryan Newman. Twenty-five additional points would have left McMurray eighth leaving Richmond.


Carl Edwards: Docked 25 points following his win in the September race at Dover Motor Speedway for a rear height violation. The penalty was appealed and upheld.

Effect on standings: Edwards finished ninth in driver points; 25 additional points would have given him a sixth-place finish.


Clint Bowyer: Docked 150 points after his win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for rear chassis violation. The penalty was appealed and upheld.

Effect on playoffs: The infraction cost Bowyer five spots in the final driver standings; 150 additional points would have given Bowyer a fifth-place finish in championship standings.


Kyle Busch: Parked and subsequently suspended for the remainder of the weekend for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in the Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch’s suspension included the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series races at Texas.

Effect on playoffs: It’s impossible to calculate the exact impact on Busch as his finish at Texas would have determined the point earned. The minimum points available in a race in 2011 was one, which would not have changed the standings as Busch finished 16 points behind his brother Kurt Busch; he’d have had to have finished 28th or better to advance in the standings. A race win with the maximum points earned (48) would have moved Busch to seventh in the final standings.


Jeff Gordon: Docked 25 points for an on-track altercation with Bowyer. Hendrick Motorsports did not appeal.

Effect on playoffs: 25 additional points would have moved Gordon from 10th to seventh in the final standings.


Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer: All three drivers for Michael Waltrip Racing were docked 50 points each for attempting to manipulate the outcome of a race. Truex was racing for the 12th and final playoff berth; Bowyer spun on track in what appeared to be an intentional incident to bring out a caution to help Truex; Vickers was called to pit road for a seemingly nonexistent flat tire.

Effect on playoffs: Truex was eliminated from playoff contention by NASCAR; Newman was given the final spot, and after review of other possible outcomes, Gordon was added as a 13th contender. Bowyer’s points finish was not affected because the penalties were levied before the playoff point reset, which effectively erased the penalty.

Brad Keselowski: Docked six points after the June race at Dover Motor Speedway for a front-end height violation and 25 points for a suspension infraction at Texas in the spring race.

Effect on Playoffs: Keselowski missed the playoffs; an additional 31 points would have tied him for 10th after the cutoff race.


Matt Kenseth: Suspended for two races after intentionally wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway in the third round of the playoffs.

Effect on playoffs: Impossible to calculate exact impact. Kenseth had been eliminated from title contention but was competing for points position. With 48 being the maximum available points at the time, had Kenseth won both races, he could have finished as high as ninth in points.


Kyle Larson: Suspended indefinitely (remainder of season) for use of racial slur on an open radio channel.

Effect on playoffs: Impossible to calculate; Larson was a likely candidate to make the postseason, however.

Jimmie Johnson: Disqualified after the first of two spring races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, resulting in a 37-point loss.

Effect on playoffs: The seven-time champion missed the final playoff spot in his final season by six points.

It’s true that every point counts in NASCAR, and it’s also true that points have to be earned honestly.

While it has seemed at times that NASCAR is reluctant to penalize playoff drivers, that hasn’t always been the case. And sometimes, it’s changed the game.


About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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PointsPointsPointsPointsPoints!!! It’s nice to see that NA$CAR’s emphasis on wins has taken points out of the equation, just like they want.


You forgot this one. Mark Martin’s best chance at the cup. 1990 Martin was fined 46 points for an illegal carburetor spacer after the Richmond Race. He lost to Dale Earnhardt by 26 points. I know this is ancient history to many of you.

Tom B

Good One.
If its old it is immaterial.


It wasn’t an illegal spacer. They had welded the spacer to the intake manifold. NA$CAR said it wasn’t illegal but they didn’t like it. The more things change…


wonder why you Amy didn’t post the 2 or more times JJ had his points fixed or replaced for the 2 times he cheating & no points reduction by the GM people on the last appeal i guess when you cheat in a GM car you look the other way nascar & amy don’t see it

Bill B

You know, I’ve always had a feeling that Amy was on GM’s payroll.

Bobby DK

I would love to know what color of Camero she drives!

Kevin in SoCal

There is no “E” in Camaro.

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