Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Despite Its Flaws, NASCAR Needs to Stick With the Playoff Format

What Happened

Ryan Blaney earned his first NASCAR Cup Series championship after dominating the closing stage and passing Kyle Larson late to finish second on the track, first among the Championship 4 contenders. Larson finished third, William Byron finished fourth, and Christopher Bell did not finish after an accident in the second stage. 

Blaney’s triumph marks back-to-back NASCAR championships for owner Roger Penske, a first for the legendary owner. 

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Ryan Blaney's Improbable Path to 2023 NASCAR Championship

The checkered flag of this race also marked the end of the season for all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, in which Penske’s manufacturer, Ford, also made its own history by winning the driver’s championship in all three series.

What Really Happened

Championship Weekend came to a close with a solid, no-nonsense race at the much-criticized Phoenix Raceway. The Cup Series season finale saw intense battles between championship contenders and the rest of the field that remained clean, a stark contrast from what fans witnessed on Friday night at the same venue.

Unfortunately, the Truck Series race devolved into a wreck-fest for the championship after Carson Hocevar spun fellow contender Corey Heim. To that point, Heim showed he had the fastest truck of the four championship contenders. However, he had to restart at the back of the field. Even worse, Hocevar self-penalized, dropping back to 18th.

The black eye for Hocevar soon disappeared when Heim ran Hocevar into the wall with two laps to go. To end the series championship we had not one, not two, not even three, but four overtime finishes.

The finish left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Well, except for Ben Rhodes.

The race ending looked very bad, both for the series and for NASCAR as a whole. It also ignited a firestorm of frustration towards the championship format. 

I understand NASCAR fans show nostalgia for the Winston Cup-era points system, but I’m here to say one thing: Pump the brakes. To start, let’s evaluate the weekend as a whole.

The 2023 NASCAR Championship Weekend brought out the best and the worst championship outcomes under the current playoff format. 

In the Cup Series, Blaney’s playoff hot streak resulted in winning the championship, somewhat reminiscent of Tony Stewart’s 2011 run in the Chase. 

Though the Xfinity Series race went to overtime (which is a less-than-ideal way to crown a champion), the drivers raced clean over the final laps. For a moment, the Championship 4 even raced four-wide. 

Yes, the truck race was ugly. But that series has put out equal crash-fests and races for a few years now as drivers don’t race with the same respect they used to.

Two of the three championship races showed solid action. And while the yearly debate rises about whether or not the champion “deserved” to take the season crown, we may have to live with this format for a while.

Simply stated, NASCAR cannot afford to consistently change the points format. 

Since the end of the 2003 season, the NASCAR points structure and postseason has changed six times in the last 20 years. That’s averaging one change every three and a half years.

Upon a deeper dive, the NASCAR points system changed nine times in its first 25 years. The pre-Chase system had the longest tenure, running from 1975 to 2003.

With the arrival of offseason, everyone will offer their input on what NASCAR needs to evaluate going forward. Well, here is my two cents.

Motorsports points systems have always been difficult to explain to non-fans. Looking at a wins-loss record is easier to understand, compared to awarding points based on performance in an event.

A lingering complaint holds that the championship format stands as difficult to explain. Well, an ever-changing system only exacerbates that issue. 

NASCAR needs to stick to a system for more than 10 years, maybe even more than 20, and the current system might be the best version of the playoffs NASCAR is going to get.

The playoff system is far from perfect, but that’s how playoffs go. I understand motorsport fans hate comparisons to stick-and-ball sports, but every type of playoff has its pitfalls and its critics. 

The NBA and NFL playoffs include too many teams. The NCAA Tournament needs to add teams. The high seeds in the MLB playoffs have too much time off. The CFP Committee never chooses the right teams, and some even miss the BCS Championship days. 

Yes, the NASCAR Playoffs have its drawbacks, but I could also write a defense of how NASCAR’s tweaks have perfected this version.

But that’s for another article.

Longtime fans will always clamor for the days of old. As NASCAR continues to gain new fans who have time to understand and get used to the playoffs, the old systems may eventually rest in peace in the past.

Maybe one day NASCAR will decide to further adjust the playoff system or scrap it entirely. If that occurs, so be it. But we can’t keep changing the system.

Who Stood Out

Entering the weekend, many looked to Blaney as a favorite, citing his statistics at the track in recent races and his October hot streak. And the driver of the No. 12 did not disappoint. 

Blaney showed long run speed early, and he made his first pass for the championship lead in stage two, even if it only lasted a few laps. Though Byron held off his proverbial brother-in-law to end the middle stage, Blaney established his lead over the championship contenders in the final stage. 

He made the pass on Larson look easy on the final run, something very difficult to do.

Every year since 2014, fans wonder if a non-playoff driver can triumph over the Championship 4. Few expected Ross Chastain to be the first to defeat the eventual champion. 

The Melon Man showed speed early in the race, and while it seemed Blaney had a faster car, Chastain ignored the yellow banner and fought tooth and nail with his Ford foe. 

Blaney passed Chastain, who immediately went back after Blaney and returned to the point. Aided by a late caution, Chastain pulled away from the championship battle to take the race win. Unfortunately for us, we only caught a glimpse of the dual burnouts, and also totally missed the melon smash.

Who Fell Flat

During practice, Bell showed speed comparable to Blaney. Entering the weekend, Bell felt confident that Toyota’s lack of speed at Phoenix in 2022 would not transfer, and the No. 20 team would contend for the championship.

Bell started the race outside the top 10 and quickly made his way through the field, following Blaney. However, the driver showed concern with his brakes during stage two, and his worries turned into a problem when the brake rotor exploded at the end of the backstretch. 

The issue ended Bell’s race, causing the first DNF for a Championship 4 contender since Carl Edwards’ late crash in 2016.

Outside of the Championship 4, Chase Elliott seemed absent all weekend. From contending for the championship in Phoenix last year, to getting lapped this year, Elliott’s no good, very bad season has ended, and the 2020 series champ can put his misfortunes in the rearview mirror. 


Better Than Last Time?

Maybe the championship battle influenced my view, but this race certainly seemed like the best Next Gen race we have seen at Phoenix so far. With the lack of traction compound on the surface and a tire with more falloff, Phoenix looked like a multi-groove race track once again. 

Some drivers found speed on the outside line on both ends of the race track, even by the wall at times. Others rolled the apron in the first two corners and still made plenty of speed down there. 

Cars ran side-by-side for laps on in, and the race seemed to have a number of comers and goers.

The Championship 4 raced each other hard, but the non-playoff drivers also mixed it up with the contenders, resulting in some tense battles. 

This all comes from perspective of what the broadcast showed, and it looked like drivers still had a very hard time passing one another at points in the race.

However, the 2022 championship race and the spring race in 2023 set the bar very low. 

Paint Scheme of the Race

In the midst of the Next Gen car sounds echoing around the racetrack, I believe I heard the familiar sounds of two Star Wars crafts in a dogfight. Indeed, an X-Wing and TIE Fighter somehow got loose on the racing surface of Phoenix Raceway, as Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick battled the field in their Star Wars-themed racecars. 

In addition to the iconic wraps, the pilots of the two 23XI Racing crafts had the uniforms and cast of characters to match.

Kevin Harvick’s final paint scheme deserves a nod as well, as his legendary career officially ended with a final top-10 finish. I did feel slight disappointment, though, as we saw Harvick’s name slapped on the hood in 2019, but still, this served as a solid tribute.

What’s Next?

At this moment, drivers enjoy the race home and into the offseason. Teams will get to work, beginning preparation for the 2024 season. Sometime between now and Daytona, a jolly red fellow might deliver gifts to the children of the world.

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to action in the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. The race runs on Sunday, Feb. 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET.

Two weeks later, the 2024 chase for the championship officially begins on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 2:30 p.m. ET with the Daytona 500.

About the author

calebbarnes924

I began sports writing in 2023 with The Liberty Champion, where I officially covered my first NASCAR race at Richmond in the spring. While there, I met some of the guys from Frontstretch, and I joined the video editing team after I graduated from Liberty University with degrees in Strategic Communications and Sports Journalism. I currently work full-time as a Multi-Media Journalist with LEX 18 News in Lexington, Kentucky and contribute to Frontstretch with writing and video editing. I'm also behind-the-scenes or on camera for the Happy Hour Podcast, live every Tuesday night at 7:30!

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23 Comments
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Daytona-520

Despite the argument presented here, the truck guys have clearly proven they can’t handle a playoffs and it needs to be scrapped there. Or at least raise the minimum age, but there’s a much a lower chance of that happening.

Ted

It’s the age thing. Teenagers shouldn’t be on the same track as adults,… they don’t care if they destroy someone’s expensive equipment. It’s unfair to all parties. 😬🤷🏼‍♂️

DoninAjax

The NFL doesn’t have 32 teams on the field for the Super Bowl! Stick and ball sports ELIMINATE teams for their real playoffs.

Echo

Serious question for you. In the whole season final standings. It has bubba 10th for the year. Am I missing something here. Did bubba improve that much in a Gibbs car
Or- has Hamlins found something every other cars have missed. Or is bubba and Denny himself running cars in the gray area !!! I can’t believe bubba improved that much

DoninAjax

Bubba is SEVENTEENTH in Owner POINTS and Little Gibbs is 18th. Elliott is TENTH in owner points. I’m sure NA$CAR will put a ridiculous spin on this. It is the extra points they get as they progress through the farce.

Bill B

While I’d like to point out how stupid the playoffs are and how the old, year long format was a better way to award the most deserving driver the championship, I will digress.
Everything I hoped would happen yesterday did:

1) Ryan Blaney won the championship. He was my number one pick. The fact that Ford won every series and this is two years in a row for Penske should shut the “Ford is at a disadvantage crowd” up, but it won’t (will it Chief?).

2) Someone besides one of the championship 4 won the race. And as a bonus it was a driver I didn’t mind seeing win. I guess Chastain ignored the memo and raced the championship guys hard risking the ire of NASCAR.

3) The guy that got out first on the last pit stop didn’t win. Blaney was able to get around Larson.

4) The race finished without the messy GWC finish the other two series had to endure. No crapshoot ending.

The race itself was decent enough. Still think it should be longer than 300 miles but it played out fairly compelling.

Another season over and the year not too far behind. Looking forward to the off-season, at least until Jan 2nd, then I won’t be able to wait.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bill B
gbvette

“Ford won every series”???

While Ford drivers won in all three series, Ford didn’t win the manufacturers championship in any of them. Chevrolet had the manufacturer’s championship wrapped up in all three series before anyone arrived at Phoenix. A lot of the stories and releases floating around the internet are being worded to make it sound like Ford won both the drivers and manufacturer’s titles, but it was Chevrolet that swept all three manufacturer’s titles.

Bill B

Personally I don’t care about manufacturers, I was rooting for Blaney because I like him (if he switched to one of the other manufacturers I’d still like him), but I do get tired of the constant whining, mostly from the Ford camp. Even when Ford wins all three championships you have to find a reason to cry about unfairness. So it won’t be “fair” until Ford wins every category. Whatever.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bill B
wildcats2016

Nice recap, Bill B! since I agree with you that the old, year long format was the better way but since its unlikely that it will come back, all of your points are well made.

I, too, was happy that Ryan Blaney won the championship. He wasn’t my first pick since I’m a Chevy fan but at the end of the race, I was cheering for him to win it.

I was shocked and extremely happy that your points 2, 3 and 4 ALL happened. It was amazing.

CHIEF

Ah Bill, I was trying to move away from hendricknascars deluge of GM BS but you had to lure me back in didn’t you. Obviously a connoisseur of the golden-boys regime, you took the Blaney high road to save face and salvage your ego. No worries though man, the booth is still full of rick’s bubba’s and more still to come. Final Tally: Chevy-18, Toyota-10, Ford-8.

Carl D.

I’ve come to accept, but not embrace, the playoffs. I don’t like the playoff points, but stage points I can live with. I do think that stage points should only go to the top 5 cars… ten is too many.

Last edited 7 months ago by Carl D.
Jeremy

I still loathe the playoffs. It reeks of desperation and NA$CAR trying to be something it’s not. However, I do like the idea of stage points to motivate drivers to stay up on the wheel for the entire race – BUT, I HATE, HATE, HATE! the decision to stop the race at each stage. Award the points but keep the cars on the track! Stop giving laps back – the “lucky dog” needs to go away. You miss a setup, have some bad luck on track, too bad. It’s all part of the game. Finally, I think there should be a larger bonus for most laps led, and a larger point bonus for winning the race, plus a meaningful amount of points for winning pole. Make it worthwhile for teams to “go for it” in qualifying.

gbvette

NASCAR’s playoff format still sucks. Keeping a screwed up system that’s “difficult to explain” around for another 10 or 20 years, isn’t going to make it any easier to explain, or any better.

Personally I was thrilled that we didn’t get to see farmer Ross smash a melon.

Bell’s right front rotor was glowing red 30 or more laps before it exploded. It was obvious on TV, more then on other cars around him. I commented on it to my wife, yet neither his spotter nor the booth picked up on it?

Brian

With the playoff format I have never agreed with the trucks having the same system as Xfinity and Cup. Season too short. It would be a great learning tool for the drivers and teams to have the trucks run a season long only championship and see how it goes. Keep the points, stages, and such the same just no playoff point or actual playoffs. It might actually help the racing even more in the trucks due to hopefully less trucks wrecked which might help to get some ownership back into the NASCAR game at the truck level.

Ed Rooney

zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Bill B

Hey Ferris Blaney is a righteous dude Mr Rooney.

RCFX1

They never used to drive on the apron like they do now. We heard all the complaining about the turn one road course where everyone was beating and banging to get to the turn, but then they allow this mess?

RCFX1

One other question. They had two stages, and people scored stage points. When do those come into play?

Bill B

Race 37

Carl D.

🤣

Daytona-520

The stage points are added for the other 32 cars in the field immediately. Despite what the booth says, there’s still a points battle for 5th and 17th and 25th going on.

Christopher

NASCAR’s popularity and ratings have declined every year since the abomination of the playoffs, the Chase, the blah blah blah was instituted. It’s not doing what Brian Z. France’s fevered dreams imagined it would do. Kill it.

Overra88ted

Every format used since 2004 is just a points do-over championship,.

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