Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Waiving the White Flag on NASCAR Playoff Waiver

Did You Notice? … The NASCAR Playoff waiver has done nothing but cause controversy since its inception? The latest one ended Tuesday (June 4) when Kyle Larson was ultimately granted a waiver despite missing a Cup Series race to run the Indianapolis 500.

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Dropping the Hammer: NASCAR Saves Itself From Self-Immolation

The waiver has been in play since 2014, when the sport introduced its multi-round, 16-driver postseason format. It was the first system created in the sport’s history where NASCAR specified a driver needed to start every race in order to be championship eligible. That text lives on today, couched within Section 12.3.2.1.A of the NASCAR rulebook…

Unless otherwise authorized by NASCAR, driver(s) and Team Owner(s) must start all Championship Events of the current season to be eligible for The Playoffs.

Since then, we’ve seen the waiver used (or not) in all kinds of circumstances. Here’s a few highlights…

2014: The first instance of the playoff waiver comes into play after Denny Hamlin missed a race at Auto Club Speedway due to a sinus infection. Hamlin spends much of the year outside the top 16 in points but a win earns him a postseason spot he rides all the way into the Championship 4.

2015: NASCAR grants a playoff waiver to Kyle Busch after missing nearly a third of the season due to injury (11 races). Busch goes on to win the championship.

2016: Tony Stewart earns a waiver to start his final full-time Cup season after a back injury takes him out of the first two months. He winds up winning and making the postseason.

2020: Ryan Newman earns a waiver after missing three races due to injury. Matt Kenseth earns a waiver despite being retired for the first four races of the season, only to come out of retirement and replace Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing. Neither driver makes the playoffs.

Several drivers earn a playoff waiver due to COVID-19. One of them, Austin Dillon, makes the postseason cut but falls short of the Championship 4.

2021: Over in the Camping World Truck Series, Grant Enfinger fails to find a ride for the second race of the season. He spends most of the rest of the year in playoff position, piling up 11 top-10 finishes, but was never considered for a waiver.

2023: Chase Elliott gets granted a waiver after breaking his leg in a snowboarding accident. He keeps said waiver after a one-week suspension for intentionally wrecking Hamlin at Charlotte Motor Speedway but fails to make the playoffs.

2024: Larson gets granted a waiver after choosing to run the Indy 500 on the same day as the Coca-Cola 600. After weather delays that race, he fails to make the start of the NASCAR event and never even drives the No. 5 Chevrolet despite his best efforts.

For the most part, there’s a clear trend by NASCAR here: giving away waivers like Oprah gives out cars. Of course, there’s exceptions to every rule, but it just seems like the simple ask of “start every race or else” has created an avalanche of them.

The crazy thing is, before the current playoff format, NASCAR went decades with champions that started every race. The old Latford point system, in place from 1975 through 2010, rewarded consistency and carried too much of a penalty for a driver to miss and stay in contention.

In fact, before Busch’s injury-riddled title chase in 2015, you needed to go back to 1971 and Richard Petty to find a champion who didn’t start all the races. Back then, the schedule was 48 events, including some midweek tilts that made it impossible for even the big-budget teams to show up every time out.

So, if the waiver is being used rather liberally at this point, that begs a simple question: why have it at all? At this point, the waiver’s been used for a suspension, illness, injury and someone driving in another series instead. What will it actually deter? And is it really conducive to the most worthy driver over the course of the year having the best chance to get crowned a champion?

I think there’s a simple way for NASCAR to save face and tweak the postseason so these waivers don’t have to come into play. It’s a small change to the rule so these controversies fall by the wayside and the racing, not the officials, determine the postseason field. (Although I’m sure the press from taking a week to decide on Larson wasn’t a bad thing.)

Here’s how I would tweak the rules going forward.

See also
Happy Hour: NASCAR Does the Waive with Kyle Larson

Drivers become eligible for the 16-driver playoff field by…

  • Starting every race and either A) Winning a Cup Series event or B) Accumulating enough points as a winless driver to qualify for the 16-driver field
  • If a driver misses at least one race, they must either win a Cup Series event and accumulate enough points to remain inside the top 16 or score enough points to finish inside the top 16

It sounds a little complicated. But it’s not too hard, really. This tweak would mean now that Larson’s missed a race, he can’t fall outside the top 16 in points like Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric currently are. He’s treated as a winless driver no matter how many races he goes out and wins.

On the flip side, if there’s a driver who has an unexpected surge, like Enfinger in 2021, but missed a race simply because there was none available, they can still fight their way into the playoffs. It ensures the best drivers who scored the most points still get in but gives a punishment to those who fail to show up every week.

Won’t that make drivers miss a ton of races? Critics might say. After all, Larson still sits 145 points above the cutline; he could miss the next two races and still be nowhere close to falling out.

But the system isn’t designed to do that. The playoff points drivers accumulate during the regular season through race and stage wins often make the difference in who’s able to advance from round to round. Those bonuses have put dominant regular season drivers like Elliott (2022) into the Championship 4 despite a subpar playoff performance.

It seems hard to believe drivers will suddenly take large chunks of races off, risking the loss of up to seven playoff points per race to their rivals by sitting out. And at the end of the day, does missing one race suddenly make someone an unworthy champion? If Larson winds up winning eight times this season, will anyone care about the one race where he got zero points for failing to start?

No. He’ll still be considered the best driver of the year and worthy of taking home the championship. You don’t want technicalities and officials to determine who’s in and who’s out.

One other thing this rule would overturn in the future: Busch’s controversial championship of 2015 where he missed so many events. If this rule were in place, Busch wouldn’t have been championship eligible as he sat too far outside the top 16 in points. You don’t ever see a team miss one third of their season and then win a title; I’m not so sure a driver should, either.

Perhaps NASCAR can make this simple tweak for 2025 after other important business, like the charter agreements, get ironed out. Let’s just hope their wavering decision on the Larson waiver didn’t do permanent damage to drivers seeking to attempt the Indy 500 / Coca-Cola 600 double. Any time that happens, both series benefit from the extra publicity and excitement surrounding the effort.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Shane van Gisbergen feels more Cup ready for 2025 than Zane Smith after his first 15 races with Spire Motorsports. Trackhouse has some tough decisions ahead.
  • Ryan Blaney sits just 47 points above the cutline, winless, after running out of gas at World Wide Technology Raceway. He’s now gone three straight races without a top-20 finish. How many times have we seen the previous year’s champion or a Championship 4 participant (Tony Stewart, 2006; Brad Keselowski, 2013; Joey Logano, 2017) flame out of the playoffs one season later? As it stands now, it would only take wins from three quality drivers currently sitting behind Blaney (Logano, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch) to knock out the reigning champ.

Follow Tom Bowles on X @NASCARBowles

About the author

Tom Bowles
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The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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4 Comments
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Jeremy

From the article:

Drivers become eligible for the 16-driver playoff field by…

Starting every race and either A) Winning a Cup Series event or B) Accumulating enough points as a winless driver to qualify for the 16-driver field

If a driver misses at least one race, they must either win a Cup Series event and accumulate enough points to remain inside the top 16 or score enough points to finish inside the top 16

Overall I agree, but I think the first bullet point is redundant. It’s not needed if bullet #2 is amended to read;

A driver must either win a Cup Series event and accumulate enough points to remain inside the top 16 in points OR score enough points to finish inside the top 16.

To add: Sponsor commitments and the need to finish inside the top 16 will keep drivers entering nearly every race, except for special circumstances (such as the Indy 500). Given the current state of NASCAR, injuries and suspensions are more likely to keep a driver out of a car than going off to run another series. There could even be a clause that any disciplinary suspension from competition due to rules infractions may exclude a driver from being chase eligible. This would, of course, be at NASCAR’s discretion depending on the severity of circumstances surrounding said disciplinary action.

Last edited 16 days ago by Jeremy
DoninAjax

“Solving the waiver problem,which NA$CAR is to blame for,is easy!If a driver is in the top 16 he is eligible for the final ten event farce.

I wrote that on May 27.

Wildcarsfan2016

I agree that the waivers are ridiculous and completely NASCARs fault Kyle Busch simply should not have been eligible that year. But whatever it’s always been their playing field

Motorsports Fan

What they should abolish is the rule: postseason eligibility in Section 12.3.2.1.A and make qualifying for the playoffs points and skill, nothing else.

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