With 13 different winners and a playoff system that prioritizes wins over consistency, is it time for NASCAR to reconsider the championship format?
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has seen 13 different winners though the first 22 races. While some were expected, others were not, setting up for a wild playoff bracket.
The season started with Michael McDowell winning the Daytona 500 to secure his first win in his 358th career start, second only to two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who secured his first win in his 463th career start, also in the Daytona 500.
From there, we saw a first-time winner in Christopher Bell at the Daytona International Speedway road course, and this past weekend, Aric Almirola got his first points win since 2018 and his first non-superspeedway win when he took the checkered at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Almirola was excited to announce that he is going playoff racing, but he still sits in a 23rd place tie in the point standings. While it’s highly unlikely that he won’t make the playoffs (he still technically isn’t locked in), his season has been plagued with DNFs, six to be exact.
With four races remaining in the regular season, there is still room for more winners, and unfortunately, there are opportunities for more DNFs.
Almirola has made the playoffs each year since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, so this is not to suggest that the 37-year-old Tampa, Florida doesn’t deserve it. But his win puts Richard Childress Racing, which have been running consistently all year, in a spot where likely only one (at most) of their two drivers, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick, will grab a playoff spot.
Before Sunday, Dillon and Reddick were 104 and 96 points above the playoff cut line, respectively. Additionally, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, who is clinging on to the regular season pints lead, is winless, and there is still very much a chance that he could miss the playoffs.
NASCAR changed the playoff format to promote winning, but they are now finding themselves promoting what they first chased away.
The playoffs originally started as the Chase for the Cup and were designed to promote winning. They began after the 2003 season, when Matt Kenseth won the championship with only one win while Ryan Newman won eight races and did not even place inside the top five in points due to suffering far more DNFs (seven compared to Kenseth’s two).
Now NASCAR finds themselves in a spot where a driver who has been plagued by DNFs has grabbed a win and has a shot to win the title.
Compare that to last year, when another Stewart-Haas Racing driver, Kevin Harvick, won nine races, the most since 2008, only to find himself not only without the trophy but not even in the Championship 4. Under the old points format, Harvick would have clinched the championship after the race contested two races before the season finale.
It’s hard to say that NASCAR should abolish the playoffs, as the current format from 2014 was slightly revised again in 2017, and more change could lead to a lack of consistency in the rules.
However, the lack of consistency in a driver and/or team has proven not to matter with a single win under the current format. There may be no right or wrong in this case, but there are certainly some questions to be asked with the unpredictable style of racing that is produced by the playoffs.