Whether you’re for or against NASCAR having playoffs doesn’t really matter any more, because, let’s face it, they aren’t going anywhere.
But there is one super easy change that could enhance the playoffs so much while eliminating a lot of the usage of the term “Mickey Mouse champion.” Let’s make the Championship 4 a three-race series like every other round of the playoffs instead of a one-race, winner-take-all affair.
What I’ve seen and heard from many fans and people in the industry is that they don’t typically have a problem with the first three rounds of the playoffs. I agree, those early rounds are thrilling, with drama to the max.
You can feel the tension and excitement building and building as the playoff field dwindles from 16 competitors to four. But then the air gets let out of the balloon when the NASCAR Cup Series goes to Phoenix Raceway for the Championship 4 race.
That race is always a dud.
Part of the problem is obviously the venue. When former driver and current FOX analyst Jamie McMurray made a guest appearance on the podcast Door, Bumper, Clear last year, he said that Phoenix hadn’t had a good race since 1989. Cup started going to Phoenix in 1988. Do that math.
I don’t completely agree with McMurray, as I do remember a few good races there a while back. Phoenix definitely hasn’t delivered in the Next Gen car era, though.
Since the championship race moved to Phoenix, the champion doesn’t come down to who has the best raw speed that day. It often comes down to whoever wins the race off pit road during the final caution. As long as that’s the case, there is an opening for fans to label the champion as a Mickey Mouse champion.
But even if the championship race went to a track that features passing there remains the possibility of having a Mickey Mouse champion. The one-race shootout should’ve gone away after the 2016 season when Jimmie Johnson‘s seventh title was a Mickey Mouse one after Carl Edwards and Joey Logano wrecked when a shady caution set up a final restart.
The invention of playoff points the following year helped make those who make the Championship 4 more representative of the season as a whole (Martin Truex Jr. would’ve been eliminated rounds ago in the 2014-16 version). There is still a disconnect, though, when it gets to the last race.
I’ve seen the idea floated around by others, and I am all for it. The Championship 4 should be three races long, not one.
Imagine a three-race shootout where whoever has the most points at the end of those three races is your champion. Take or leave playoffs points for this round, but I think it’d be good to have them. Not only would it be three weeks of building intensity, you’d get a fair champion.
Then it wouldn’t matter where the last race of the season is located. As the schedule is set up now, the Championship 4 series would be at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix. That would be a perfect round. You get three very different track types, so the champion would be someone who has speed at all three. Right now it only matters to a team how its one-mile speed is since the championship round is only one race.
Plus, it would give a chance to build up the championship rivalries. The most memorable seasons in NASCAR history had two drivers in a true rivalry for the championship: Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip in 1979, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt in 1995, Tony Stewart and Edwards in 2011, and so many more. As things stand, there are eight drivers still in play until the final week of the season. That’s too many for fans and media to draw attention to and appreciate the battle at the top.
Speaking of Stewart, I have yet to see anyone refer to his 2011 title as a Mickey Mouse title. So fans do respect the champion after a multiple-race series, just not a one-race shootout.
The MLB, NBA and NHL all do series in their championship round, and fans certainly tune in for those sports’ playoffs. Having multiple rounds is a better way to crown a champion. It’s like running an experiment more than once so that you have a greater sample size and the data is more accurate.
It wouldn’t take much tweaking to adjust the rest of the playoffs to include a three-race Championship 4. Get rid of the Round of 16 and have 12 drivers make the playoffs. Then make one of the rounds four races instead of three (a four-race Championship 4 sounds even better to me).
Or if NASCAR has to have half the full-time drivers make the playoffs then extend the playoffs to 12 weeks. Those August races don’t mean a whole lot now anyways, and ratings for them aren’t too great.
Or with the way all sports are trending with more and more teams making the playoffs, let’s just have everyone make the playoffs and cut it from 32 drivers to 12 after one race. That would be some beautiful chaos, but I’m just being snarky now.
I don’t care what NASCAR does with the front end of the playoffs, but the Championship 4 has got to be better than what it currently is. Because it can’t get any worse.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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