CRANDALL: Dear NASCAR, your playoff system is broken

Playoff outsiders Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. Image by Miller/LAT

CRANDALL: Dear NASCAR, your playoff system is broken

Insights & Analysis

CRANDALL: Dear NASCAR, your playoff system is broken



Your playoff system’s flaws are showing.

When you created a postseason for our sport, the intentions were noble: keep fans interested and tuned in throughout the long season, and not have a driver run away with the title weeks before the finale.

My beef is not with the playoffs themselves. I can’t be a hypocrite, I’ve been preaching for 15 years now that the playoffs are here to stay, so find another issue for the soap box.

But, you do have a problem. One that Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and a handful of others are making extremely clear. The playoffs are too inclusive. Sixteen drivers is way too many.

Good drivers and teams are always going to rise to the top. The “Big 3” we all keep talking about proves that. Week in and week out, they are always there. Then throw the Team Penske trio of Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski in along with Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin, and you’ve already got an impressive championship lineup.

Add the consistency of Kurt Busch and the resurgence of Clint Bowyer and whew, that’s a postseason fight I want to see. These are the drivers we are already talking about anyway this year, based on the finishing order each week. All are consistently showing their championship worth.

The best of the best going at it for 10 weeks is how it should be. Or, three at a time in each round because of the eliminations.

If you didn’t count, that’s 10 drivers I mentioned above – 10 being exactly what the playoff field used to be from 2004-06, when it was an exclusive club only the most deserving got to be in. Back when a driver had to scratch and claw for every position on the track because points for a finish mattered just as much as winning.

Then in 2014 – after already having bumped up the field to 12, which I got behind since there was an argument to be made for 12 deserving drivers – you changed the format to the 16 we now have. It was a terrible idea then, and still looks bad now.

I get it, though. There are a lot of big name drivers and sponsors who need to be taken care of. But trying to hype all 16 drivers as having a legitimate shot at the championship is as difficult as convincing some folks that Toyota doesn’t have NASCAR in its pocket.

Sixteen drivers might get to call themselves ‘championship contenders’, but each weekend it’s clear who the real ones are. When you look down the playoff grid, at some point you realize – about halfway down – there is no need to care.

There is no drama around who is and isn’t going to advance. No uncertainty about which teams have the ability to go deep into the playoffs.

Again, the teams that are good now are going to be good in two months when the title fight starts. As much as I know you would love to see stories about how an Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard or whoever gets into the playoffs on the bottom tier of the grid and looks to slay the giants with a title run, it’s ridiculously unrealistic if current performance trends continue.

A statement that can be said for [insert drivers here] every year we do this.

Win and advance, great. Keep an emphasis on winning. Survive and advance, awesome. Points racing should still play a role.

But 16 teams? Sorry, the NCAA tournament has the sweet 16 market covered.

If you are a team fighting just to finish among the contenders every week, you should not be included in the playoff conversation. Motorsport is hard, and certainly harsh sometimes, and I wish you saw the inclusion of the playoffs that way.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, three of your biggest names, survived during the years they didn’t qualify for the postseason. Sure, they and their sponsors might not have liked it, but that’s what made the playoffs special – participation wasn’t a given, no matter who you were.

Now? Now it’s become tiring having my championship coverage include drivers who will only be receiving a participation trophy because the big one is far from attainable.