Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Anticlimactic Cup Series Finale Exposes Playoff Flaws

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.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Joey Logano Dominates Phoenix For 2nd NASCAR Title

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.

Share this article

21 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kb

Of course. Logano dominates and meh..no big deal, should not have happened etc. Everybody else “puts on a clinic” in the same situation. Heaps of praise and LOVE HEARTS all over social media! LOL.

Don’t know what the deal is with a few members of The Frontstretch. Did you all see Blaney’s post-race interview? Asked if he let Logano “win” he empathetically said no, said he could not catch him. And was pissed about not catching and passing.

Charlie

Well said. And NASCAR needs to realize it is clean air that keeps the front end planted, the car turning. BUT, Logano did put on a clinic, the team prepared an outstanding car, Doug Yates Horsepower, great calls by Paul Wolf.
But, and I agree with you, people do not like Logano. Don’t know why. He does what he was hired to do, win.

johndawgchapman

What did you expect Blaney to say, It was team orders, & I was in position to block for him if he needed it?

Kevin in SoCal
kb

Exactly Kevin in SoCaL. He wanted a win. He was pissed. Out of his mouth to our ears. People don’t want to believe it, some Frontstrech readers and writers….Tis the truth. He hates that his season is winless. He just couldn’t catch him. His words.

SB

To me the ultimate irony with a playoff is that Nascar didn’t want drivers always talking about a ‘good points day’ at the end of a race. Now, they have even MORE points for drivers to go for….stage points, playoff points…it’s a math class trying to keep track of them all. Instead of eliminating the issue, they expanded it.

azwatergeek

Stage racing has replaced what used to be called the “phantom caution”, to bunch the field up. It’s all contrived excitement and they STILL points race. I’ve never been a fan of the current scoring system and always felt that tweaks to the old scoring system (like awarding significantly more points for a win) could have been the answer.

RCFX1

I’ve always said it was more of a ‘competition yellow’ than anything else. If the car is bad, we’ll be stopping in 45 more laps, and we’ll work on it then. I don’t even tune in anymore until well into the second half of Stage 3. If you want to see something funny/sad, watch the race highlights on YouTube. They show the first lap, then the end of stage one and the restart then the end of stage 2. Nothing is happening most of the time so there’s no real reason to tune in. At 30 to go, Phoenix was over. The commentators tried to pump it up into something competitive, but Ross’s times were flat. He wasn’t getting any closer but they got louder and louder.

Larry

OK, fine. So you are saying Legano stunk up the show (just like Larson did a few weeks earlier). There are races where one team clearly hits the setup right and all the other cars are fighting for second place. And much as I hate to see a “boring” race like that myself, by golly the fastest/best care should win that race.(Like when Jeff Burton led every lap at New Hampshire back in the day.) The 22 team earned the right to do so by locking themselves in to Phoenix first which allowed themselves the luxury of focusing extended prep time for that race. The rules of engagement allowed them to do that and with the Penske resources that’s exactly what they did. And Legano and the team executed the plan almost flawlessly.

You wrote several paragraphs about what you perceived to be wrong about the format, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But unless I missed it, I didn’t not see you offer any solutions.

I think the only viable solution to enhance the final show is to separate the Final 4 from the rest of the field. If the final race is 300 laps, run the first 200 excluding the Final 4 altogether then have a separate and final race of 100 laps for the Top 4 only. There’s your Final 4 shoot-out scenario. Last man standing wins the Cup.

RCFX1

All three pole winners won their races. This car on that track sucked. Once you get clean air, it’s over.

wildcats2016

I’ve never been a fan of the playoff format. Having the champion decided over the entire season is in my opinion a much better option.

DoninAjax

I can’t wait to find out what new solutions the geniuses in Daytona come up with to maintain Brian’s vision for his toy.

Kevin in SoCal

You’re looking at season-long championships with nostalgia and rose-colored glasses. Way more often than not, the champ was already determined by the final race. This system isn’t perfect either, but there is a lot more drama and a lot more tension among the drivers racing to continue in the playoffs. Just look at Bell winning twice when he was all but eliminated. And Chastain’s power-move goes without saying.
Racing hard during the regular season all year got Chase Elliott tons of extra bonus points that carried him all the way to the final four. Without those, he might have been eliminated earlier.
I do think 16 drivers is way too many and dilutes the field with one-off winners from the plate tracks. 12 would be better, so the playoffs feel even more elite, and a challenge to get more than one win.

Jeremy

Here’s the thing, though; There were years where the points battle went down to the last race or two. This didn’t always happen, and that made those battles much more exciting and special to see than this yearly dog and pony show. When you try to fabricate a “bottom of the 9th bases loaded, 2 outs, 0-2 count” scenario year after year, it’s not so special anymore is it? It MUST happen organically to authentically generate the buzz and capture the interest of not only fans but potentially those who don’t usually follow racing. When it’s faked, everyone knows it and the title is cheapened regardless of how “deserving” the champion is.

Last edited 2 months ago by Jeremy
DoninAjax

What’s with all the POINTS talk? I thought the idea was to eliminate POINTS from the equation. To me it has done the complete opposite. Now POINTS are more important since they can keep a driver in the running for the title. And the winner of the title still doesn’t have to win the last event, only finish ahead of the other three. NA$CAR just won’t let that happen and the final events of the last few seasons have proven it. How many TV time outs were there using the Latford system to get extra POINTS?

johndawgchapman

This is exactly what NASCAR set themselves up for by flogging the championship from day one at Daytona. What this does is that it makes all the other teams not in the the playoffs relegated to second class status.

You mentioned that Elliott wrecked off the nose of Chastain’s car. That’s correct as far as it goes, but you neglected to mention that h cut across that nose when he wasn’t clear. These things happen in a split second, & I don’t see any blame accruing to Chastain. In fact it could have wrecked them both as well as collecting others.

But yes, it was a very unexciting race for everyone except Logano.

Kurt Smith

There’s a lot of reasons why playoffs don’t work in auto racing, the main one being that with the other drivers still participating, it doesn’t look like playoffs. There’s also that little matter of how, with the old points system, you knew that the champion really was the best team. Kyle Larson dominated the circuit in 2021 and was clearly the class of the field all season, but he ended up winning the title with just one great pit stop.

The current playoff system was designed when Danica was still in NASCAR, and it was designed to give her every possible chance to make the playoff field. She could have lucked into a win at Daytona or Talladega and been a “playoff contender”, and maybe someone out there would finally be fooled into thinking that she was actually good. It was eye-rolling the lengths that NASCAR and the networks went to tout her supposed skills. Brian’s marketing genius at work.

Similarly, when Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the sport, wasn’t quite good enough to contend for titles, the ten-car “Chase” format was hatched to keep him in it to the end. When he didn’t make the Chase, it was expanded to 12 cars. It backfired huge when he still couldn’t make the playoffs…the largest fan base in ANY sport tuned out after 26 races.

NASCAR’s biggest problem since King Brian took over has been that the sport is run by marketing people, not racing people. I give Logano and his team all the credit in the world for making this race a snoozer by the standards of what a “final four” race should be, and the simple fact is that you can’t legislate excitement.

Chris N

For decades NASCAR entered its final race with the championship already decided, or with the leader knowing a 20th or better finish would clinch. The current playoff is much better.

And when a guy like Logano comes in and whips all comers in the race everyone throws their best stuff at, that’s a champion.

Bill B

“The current playoff is much better” for making a good TV show to watch.

A year long format is much better for assuring that the most deserving driver wins the championship.

DoninAjax

When a team that won the most games during the season doesn’t win the World Series does MLB change the rules to try to guarantee it?

DoninAjax

Nobody likes the one event title decider for the Focused Four. So why not, say, a three event series with the driver who accumulates the most POINTS getting the title? That would give the other drivers at least a chance to compete for a win.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com