Before I explain why I think the NASCAR Cup Series playoff format works well, which is an opinion in the minority, I need to establish my background. The NFL has been my favorite professional league as long as I have been watching sports, therefore I have been taught that the best way to determine a championship is to battle it out in the postseason.
As a lifelong New England Patriots fan, I had to watch in pain as the Patriots went 18-0 but lost in Super Bowl 42 to the New York Giants 17-14. They were the best team all season but ultimately, were not crowned champions as they could not get the job done when it really mattered. Also, the Golden State Warriors broke the regular-season wins record but lost in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. With this established, here is why I love the much-maligned Cup Series playoff system.
The playoffs are split up into four rounds with three races each in the round of 16, 12 and 8 before the final championship race. I love the three races in each round format as the points carry over from the regular season and drivers get a chance to win their way into the next round as a win guarantees a spot in the next round. This provides plenty of drama as Kurt Busch, who came into the round of 12 on the outside looking in, won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to guarantee himself a spot in the round of 8.
Also, since the races are three rounds, it gives drivers some breathing room. If a driver comes into a round already above the cutline due to a strong regular-season, he can overcome a wreck or a poor race with strong results in the other races in the round.
My one issue with the format is there is only one championship race. There should be two or three races to avoid what happened last season as Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. lost the race to Kyle Busch due to errors on pit road. With the other rounds being three races, it gives drivers more margin for error.
One major reason this format is heavily-scrutinized is that the regular-season champion, Kevin Harvick, was eliminated from the round of 8 after crashing at Martinsville Speedway on the final lap. He won nine races this season and finished with the most top-fives and top-10 finishes. NASCAR Twitter has been in an uproar since the race ended, blasting the legitimacy of the championship and the “unfair” playoff format.
While I understand that Harvick should be rewarded for a great season, the fact also remains that like the Patriots in 2007 and the Warriors in 2016, he and his team did not get it done when it mattered most. Let us break down the three round of 8 races.
At Kansas Speedway, Harvick lost the battle to Joey Logano on pit road and the restart, allowing Logano to take the lead during the final stretch. Logano won mostly due to the high-downforce aero package which limits passing, but all of that could have been avoided if he wins the race off pit road and beats Logano on the restart.
At Texas Motor Speedway, Harvick hit the wall on turn 2 early in the race, forcing him to play catch up for the remainder. He went on to finish16th but still sat 42 points above the cutline heading into Martinsville, a big margin and the top driver that hadn’t won in the round of 8.
At Martinsville, Harvick suffered a flat tire and went down two laps. He tried to work his way up but the team kept making the car too tight for Harvick to gain momentum for the majority of the race. He worked his way up to the cutline but could not pass Kyle Busch on the final turn, wrecking out of the race and ending his championship aspirations.
Harvick and his team had three races to get enough points to advance and they failed. Plain and simple. While I understand the counterargument that it’s not like four major sports where it’s one team you’re facing instead of 39 others, at the end of the day, Harvick had his chances to advance and failed. Logano did enough to win at Kansas, Harvick slammed into the wall at Texas and Elliott had the best car at Martinsville.
Harvick and his team only have themselves to blame for this elimination. They did not run their best races when it mattered most and it cost them, just like the Patriots in 2007.
The NFL is the most popular sport in the United States and March Madness is highly beloved as their formats create high drama and moments, which bring out the best in athletes. In the U.S., we love seeing athletes perform at the highest level in the biggest stakes and NASCAR is adjusting with the times.
Those, who grew up with racing, prefer the best drivers winning the championship but this new format is bringing new fans into the sport as they can relate to the high stakes of the other sports. It is the times we live in and NASCAR is doing well to adjust to them. All they need to do now is add another championship race or two and emphasize low-downforce aero packages.