NASCAR can take a lot of positives away from the 2022 Cup Series season. The last nine months of racing have produced some fantastic finishes and the rise of a few new stars. The Gen Seven car remains a work in progress, but it did create some great races on the intermediate tracks. It really feels like NASCAR took a step forward this year in terms of the week-by-week racing product.
However, the playoffs continue to hold back the growth of the sport. Much like the regular season, several of the playoff races themselves were fun, competitive events. But the season finale at Phoenix Raceway was neither of those things. After a year where fans became accustomed to drama around every corner, the four-way championship battle on Sunday featured very little intrigue. For a sport that has chosen to put so much emphasis on one final race to determine a season long championship, having the battle for the title end with such a clunker of a race is embarrassing.
Just how non-competitive was the Phoenix season finale? Joey Logano started from the pole, led 187 of 312 laps and captured his 31st Cup Series victory, along with his second title in NASCAR’s highest division. More significantly, he thoroughly dominated the other championship contenders. Nobody else who was still in the playoffs ever looked like they could match Logano purely on pace. The only moment when he appeared vulnerable was at the end of stage two when he and several other drivers were trying to stretch their fuel to the conclusion of the stage. Otherwise, the No. 22 team was unstoppable.
All the other title contenders either ran into trouble or out of time. Chase Elliott spun off the front bumper of fellow championship hopeful Ross Chastain just after a lap 200 restart. Elliott slid into the inside wall and the resulting suspension damage to the No. 9 took him out of contention. Christopher Bell was within striking distance of Logano late in the race, but a slow pit stop under caution on lap 272 ended the No. 20 team’s chances. Chastain came charging through the field during the final green flag run, but he was unable to make up enough ground to challenge Logano.
The only person who could really match Logano’s speed all day was Ryan Blaney. In fact, Blaney appeared to be faster than Logano over the last run, but the No. 12 wound up sitting behind the No. 22 while Chastain lurked a few seconds behind them. It was smart strategy by Team Penske, who could have used Blaney to block Chastain had the No. 1 gotten any closer.
That said, NASCAR should not be happy with how the race ended. Blaney was clearly faster than Logano in the closing laps, yet the No. 12 team, which had not won a points-paying race all year, chose to sit behind their teammate and play defense. NASCAR has to acknowledge that the playoffs, which purportedly force drivers to race hard every lap all the time, created that scenario.
It’s also not the first time that a driver eliminated from the playoffs has declined to battle a driver with title hopes on the line. In the 2017 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kyle Larson had the fastest car at the end of the race but chose to back off as to not disrupt Martin Truex Jr.’s impending race win and championship. Fans might also remember the final race in 2020 when Kevin Harvick, the season’s dominant driver and arguably the best ever at Phoenix, struggled just to run in the top 10. The No. 4 team had surprisingly been eliminated from championship contention a week earlier, but had no doubt been preparing to race for a title in Phoenix. It was really strange how the No. 4 team wasn’t faster at its best track.
This season felt like a repeat of the last few years where nobody wanted to race the championship contenders particularly hard. Blaney clearly did not try to pass Logano in the final laps and Chastain faced little resistance as he moved through the field trying to catch them. Even William Byron, who vowed payback against Logano after an altercation at Darlington Raceway earlier this year, didn’t put up much of a fight while battling the No. 22 car on Sunday.
But as the old saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game. NASCAR’s insistence on a four-way winner-take-all championship battle has made a mess of the last race of the season. Unless NASCAR wants to run the season finale race with four drivers, the other 30-plus competitors in the field shouldn’t have to feel like they need to give up their chances for a race win at the expense of the title contenders.
After all, weren’t the playoffs supposed to fix this problem in the first place? Wasn’t the whole point of producing an elimination-style playoffs, and the Chase before it, to make drivers race harder in the final weeks of the season? What good is any of this if quality teams stop caring about the season once they get eliminated? The four championship contenders could still put on a good battle, unless one of them completely runs away with the race like Logano did.
Sure, blowouts happen in sports all the time. Not every championship-deciding event is going to be exciting. The problem is that NASCAR goes to such extreme lengths to try to make its championship race exciting, and more often than not, the sanctioning body’s strategies don’t work. Nearly 20 years after the introduction of the original Chase, NASCAR’s leadership still doesn’t understand that it can’t manufacture an exciting championship battle every single year. NASCAR obsessively hypes up the playoffs and the “Game 7 moments” it promises the fans. But when those moments don’t happen, everyone comes crashing back to earth feeling empty and unfulfilled.
It’s not that the playoffs can’t produce exciting moments. Chastain’s “Hail Melon” at Martinsville Speedway is a great example. But if you’re going to acknowledge the successes of the playoffs, you have to be honest about its failures, including this year’s finale. The postseason simply cannot guarantee excitement down to the wire, just like the full season points formats of years gone by sometimes led to drivers locking up the championship before the last checkered flag fell.
The difference is that compelling championship battles under season-long formats were organic and unexpected. Those formats offered the possibility, not a promise, of an exciting championship battle, making those close battles all the more special when they happened. But the playoffs do the opposite. With every race win, stage win, bonus point, playoff point, elimination and resetting of the standings, NASCAR swears that this championship battle will be one to remember.
Yet like so many others, 2022 title race was not, even with the postseason. This year has been largely positive, but a lousy championship race is going to linger with fans and leave a bad impression on the end of this season. The playoffs were supposed to prevent that from happening. If they can’t, then all of the stakeholders in NASCAR need to ask themselves why we have the playoffs in the first place.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.