NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Playoff System Rewards Luck, Not Consistency

     *Disclaimer: This post, while sometimes using the term NASCAR, is specifically talking about NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

     NASCAR, whether you think it’s a sport or not, is currently the 4th favorite sport in the US, according to an annual Harris Poll most recently done in January of this year.  Despite this surprising finding, I believe it ranks last place of all sports in determining who makes the playoffs.

     Now I admit that NASCAR faces a harder decision than most main sports do, because most team sports base performance on a record of wins and losses, where the teams with the best records make the playoffs, or in most soccer leagues win the league itself.  NASCAR can’t use a system of wins and losses, because even if there are people working together, such as a driver, crew chief, and pit crew, and “teams” such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, they don’t go up against one opponent at a time.

     For the majority of the “modern age of NASCAR” which started in 1972, when what is now the Sprint Cup Series was called the Winston Cup Series, the scoring system, while slight changes were occasionally made, worked like this.  Regardless of race length or prize money, there would be a standardized point system in which every place finisher would receiver a certain number of points, encouraging serious title contenders to run in all races.  The driver with the most points at the end of the season was crowned champion.  This was, in my opinion, the correct way for a season to be run.  The most points means best racer, and that person wins.  It couldn’t be simpler.
     This changed when the Sprint Cup was born in 2004, along with the “Chase for the Sprint Cup”, a ten race playoff following a 26 race regular season.  The way of running the Chase has changed over the years, beginning with a still viable system of the top 10 drivers in points qualifying to win the Sprint Cup.  In this format, all racers would race ten more racers, adding on to their regular season point totals, and after 36 races the driver out of the 10 who qualified with the most points would win the title.  I would’ve still been fine with this.
     Then in the coming years, many slight changes occurred.  These included expanding the chase field, adjusting points standings entering the chase by which drivers had the most wins, and adding in wild card spots for racers who didn’t finish high enough in points to make the Chase but had still one races in the regular season.  If you’re confused, I don’t blame you.  It’s not the most easy to understand system, and a flawed one they’re obviously still trying to figure out.  But moving on, here’s the current system, implemented this year.
     The fifteen drivers with the most wins are automatically in the chase, and the sixteenth and final spot given to the driver with the most points without a win.  Again, these are the only drivers eligible to win the Sprint Cup in the 10 race Chase.  Once the drivers are in the chase, a PGA style Fedex Points-like system is implemented, where after three races, the field is cut to 12.  After three more, the field cut to 8, and to 4 after three more, culminating in a final race where the driver that finishes highest out of the remaining four drivers wins the Sprint Cup.
     What were they thinking?  So basically at this point, as long as a driver gets one win during the season, they’re practically making the Chase.  This leads to all kinds of problems, like for instance Kurt Busch currently in the Chase with a win, despite the fact that a whole ten drivers outside of the Chase have more points!  And what about the driver with the most points, Jeff Gordon?  He’s currently in seventh, just because he only has one win, and six drivers have more.  What if he didn’t have that one win?  What if fifteen other drivers had wins?  He would go into the sixteenth and final spot as the remaining driver with the most points.  But in this scenario, what if the driver with the second most points didn’t have a win either?  He would miss the Chase.  Technically, someone could finish with a top ten in every race of the season, no wins, and with bad enough luck miss the Chase.  Not to mention Jamie McMurray, fifth in the Sprint Cup Series in terms of money earned, but out of the Chase.
     Here’s one more thing I just don’t get.  What if a driver misses the Chase, but goes on a miracle run in the ten races comprising the Chase, winning seven.  He may have the most overall points at the end of the season, but be ineligible for the title.
     What’s the best way to fix the system?  As I said earlier, go back to the basics, the original Winston Cup system.  Most points at the end of the season wins.  You can still have a 36 race season, but just drop the whole Chase playoffs bit.  I know that hurts publicity, and in the long term it hurts money, which is why a deduce this won’t happen, but that’s unfortunate, because I would much prefer a system that rewards consistency over the course of 36 races than a racer’s ability to win one race, or a racer coming into the Chase fifteenth but winning a few races, and in the end the title.
     One last thing.  You’re probably thinking, “Connor what’re you doing?  Lebron went to Cleveland and you’re writing about NASCAR?”  Be patient.  A “Perspectives” post is coming very soon.
     Thanks for reading,
     Connor

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