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NASCAR’s Playoff System Is Obsessed With Winning — To A Fault

Things were going from bad to worse for Martin Truex Jr. In the thick of Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond, Virginia, the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion was hunting for a win to give himself a playoff spot but instead found himself hobbled. Truex had just gotten clipped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Lap 156, and though he would battle back in the closing laps to finish seventh and ahead of fellow bubble driver Ryan Blaney, he lost ground in NASCAR’s playoff standings. As a result, the driver who ranks second in the 2022 field in average finishing position and fifth in total laps led probably needs a Hail Mary victory in one of the next two races just to qualify for one the sport’s 16 playoff spots.

Truex currently sits 17th in the playoff standings, just on the wrong side of the all-important ranking cutoff. And at first glance, Truex’s placement is perplexing: In 24 races, he’s finished among the top 10 in nearly half of them (11), with more top 5 finishes (three) than unfinished races (two). His average running position of 11.8 at any given moment of a race trails only two drivers, Chase Elliott and Blaney. So in terms of week-to-week consistency and staying near the front of the pack, it’s hard to argue 16 drivers deserve a better chance at the Cup than Truex this season.

However, there is one major piece missing from Truex’s case for a playoff berth: a first-place finish. For all of his running up front most of the season, Truex hasn’t actually won since the second Richmond race in 2021, more than 11 months ago. That’s a big problem under the current playoff system, which prizes wins to an arguably inordinate degree. As long as no more than 16 different drivers win a race — and the total points leader is one of them — every single race winner is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, no matter how thin their resume is across the entire season.

In an earlier era of the sport, Truex would have been much closer to competing for the championship. If NASCAR still used its longtime pre-playoff championship system of ranking by total driver points (which was in place for decades until the introduction of the Chase For The Cup in 2004), Truex would rank fourth, jockeying for a spot behind Elliott down the stretch run of the season. But the current era focuses heavily on wins, a change which largely arose out of the 2003 season, when hyper-consistent Matt Kenseth won the Cup Series championship despite winning fewer races (one) than nine other drivers — including Ryan Newman, who claimed eight times as many checkered flags as Kenseth but finished a distant sixth in the points. While NASCAR denies that Kenseth’s success was the motivating factor behind the creation of the playoffs (and with it a heightened — and growing — focus on wins), it is clear that the sport has chosen to err on the side of rewarding winners over dependable finishers ever since.

In most seasons, the current system still allows drivers like Truex to sneak into the playoffs, since non-race winners qualify in order based on the point standings. But 2022 has seen an incredible carousel of winners over the first 24 races of the season. Including Kevin Harvick’s recent unlikely back-to-back victories, 15 different drivers have won this year, which is tied (with 2002, 2003 and 2011) for the most unique winners over the first 24 races of a season since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972.

That means all but one of those 16 coveted playoff spots have been snatched up through race wins, leaving few leftover scraps for non-winners to fight over. Blaney hasn’t won this season either, despite posting numbers every bit as impressive as Truex’s (if not more so). If the two drivers’ spots were reversed, we’d be talking about the injustice of Blaney potentially missing the playoffs. Either way, it seems clear that at least one of the best drivers of the 2022 Cup Series season will not get a chance to drive for the championship.

Point systems and playoff setups are inherently arbitrary in racing, of course, and there’s a long history of complaints about the edge cases they inevitably cause. In 2017, Truex himself greatly benefited from the newly introduced system of bonus points for stage wins during his narrow championship victory over Kyle Busch, Harvick and Brad Keselowski. (In fairness, Truex was very clearly the best driver of that season and it would have been a shame if he was not also the champion.) Sometimes NASCAR’s famously convoluted playoff system giveth, sometimes it taketh away.

Two decades ago, NASCAR reacted to an aberrant season in which wins were not credited enough by pumping up the value of each checkered flag. This season might be the opposite — one with so many one-off winners that it exposes the limitations of all but guaranteeing them playoff berths at the expense of consistent driving. No matter what, some deserving drivers will get squeezed by the system, and that’s a lesson Truex could learn the hard way over the next few weeks.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.


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