There have certainly been a lot of storylines throughout the first half of the 2023 NASCAR season.
Extracurricular injuries to key drivers such as Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, the strengths and weaknesses of the Next Gen car in its sophomore campaign, Ross Chastain, and one penalty after the other to where we’ve lost count have been among the main headlines thus far.
But what about the points?
No, I’m not talking about the battle for 16th in points, or how we might potentially face 16 winners in the regular season once again (though that is looking unlikely).
Instead, a perhaps overshadowed battle is taking place under the surface: The battle for the regular season title.
It’s the second-consecutive season that at least the top 10 in points were 100 points within each other after 16 races, with last year marking that feat for the first time in over a decade.
And as NASCAR’s social team pointed out, the top seven in points this season are separated by the closest margin in history.
Included above are three veterans who have carried the banner for the “old guys” for several years, a journeyman driver who finally got his shot, and three drivers who have represented the youth movement. Four of them are looking for their first title.
So about that 32-point gap and currently the closest points lead battle in history, that’s great! But guess what? It means absolutely nothing.
OK, maybe not that harsh. The regular-season champion does get 15 valuable playoff points and a trophy. But in the bigger picture, that doesn’t mean much.
Since the 16-driver playoff field was introduced in 2014, only three drivers have won both the regular season title and the championship (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson), though regular season title winners were not recognized until 2017. All three of those came when playoff points were introduced in 2017, which means three regular season winners have not taken home the ultimate crown.
The division between supporters of the playoff system versus those who oppose has been like right Twix vs. left Twix. And year after year, as soon as the last lap of the season finale is completed, fans debate whether they truly deserved it.
That’s because one driver could legitimately win the first 35 races of the season and walk out of Phoenix Raceway without the Bill France Cup. Of course, that isn’t conceivable, but you get the point.
When NASCAR introduced the 16-driver playoff field for the 2014 season, its purpose was to create drama throughout the season that would retain fan interest and boost television ratings. How has that worked?
Now, if you are an antagonist of the playoff system, hold off your pitchforks and torches for a second. Let’s look at the pros of the playoff system.
It certainly does create the intended effect of drama. Without winning, no driver can rest easily. Even a massive stash of playoff points can dissipate. Just ask Kevin Harvick in 2020 or what nearly happened to Larson in 2021.
What has been created are those Game 7-like moments that NASCAR lacks from stick-and-ball professional leagues. It is that scenario that led to Ross Chastain pulling off one of the greatest moves in NASCAR history.
Just look through the history of the playoffs and there is no denying that it has created illustrious moments.
The playoffs also bring winning to the forefront. If you aren’t in NASCAR to win, why are you here? Obviously, some teams are looking to build up to that point, but that is the ultimate goal of competition: victory. It’s what keeps many teams up at night who aren’t able to cash in. Just look at the stories of Truex and Ryan Blaney a year ago.
No driver has won the Cup title without winning a race, nor has a non-playoff driver won the championship race since the current system was implemented. It makes the need to win that much more desperate.
If you are a proponent of the playoffs, shut your eyes as we get to the cons.
Consistency is no longer rewarded.
There are rare cases, such as Ryan Newman‘s 2014 runner-up campaign where he was winless, Matt Crafton‘s 2019 winless title run, and Daniel Hemric‘s first career NASCAR win at Phoenix in 2021 that also sealed his first NASCAR Xfinity Series title.
But as mentioned above, a driver could dominate the first 99% of the season only to walk away empty-handed. It’s why Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin have suggested making the championship round three races instead of one.
If you watch this video or are familiar with Brian France’s defense of the playoffs, he referenced “other leagues” quite often. The problem is NASCAR is not the NBA, or the MLB, or the NFL, and that is where fans have grown sour. As Earnhardt says in the video, the playoffs do create opportunities for sponsor exposure and more marketing opportunities. But is that the point?
One of my main problems with the playoffs is something NASCAR has turned into a theme with the playoffs: entertainment. When I think of entertainment, my mind goes to the WWE.
Listen to what Bubba Wallace told Frontstretch at the Bristol dirt race:
“We were told last week that this is an entertainment business. So the concerns we have with certain racetracks, it doesn’t matter because it’s entertainment.”
NASCAR should be entertaining, but it should not be presented as a show business. There aren’t scripts or actors, and drama should not be a gimmick. These are hundreds of drivers, crew members, and owners combined who have worked as hard as they can to reach the top. If the playoffs consistently rewarded the full-season best, that would be one thing.
Will NASCAR get rid of the playoffs? Very likely, no, at least for the foreseeable future.
But with how close the competition is with the Next Gen car, it is time to take a second look.
In the top 10 in points, there are six different teams, four Chevrolets, three Fords, and three Toyotas. And they are all separated by 85 points. The top five have no wiggle room, as first to fifth are separated by just 25 points.
The argument against a season-long points format has been that you may know the title winner before the final race, which would reduce interest. But when parity is as high as it currently is, then that interest goes up.
So what’s the perfect solution? There isn’t one because there will always be people who won’t be fully on board.
Perhaps going back to the 2004-2006 format deserves a nod. It mixed the importance of points, consistency, drama of a postseason, and forced drivers to rise to the occasion for more than just one race. Plus, it takes the top 10 drivers in points, making it hard to make the playoffs while also recognizing the best of the best that season.
The real question concerns why NASCAR is promoting the points gap when it may not affect the outcome. And with two consecutive seasons of a razor-thin points battle, is it time to move on from the current format?
A plethora of pros and cons can be debated about each points format. But at the end of the day, when NASCAR looks at the competitiveness of the field, which shoe fits the best?
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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