Raise your hand if you remember what the NASCAR Cup Series playoff format was when it debuted in 2004?
If you’re struggling to remember, don’t feel bad. NASCAR’s version of the postseason has undergone so many facelifts and Botox injections over the last 15 years that some require a cheat sheet to remember how it has evolved into what will take place over the next 10 weeks.
Sunday in Las Vegas will mark the sixth year of the elimination-style format. Like “Survivor,” not all the contestants make it to the end as the field is whittled from 16 down to four for one final race where winner takes all.
Wins in the regular season earning a playoff spot, eliminations across three rounds of three races each, and win-and-advance playoff rules started in 2014. Those variables have remained through the last few years with a few tweaks added along the way, like crowning a regular-season champion and awarding playoff points for stage wins and to drivers who finish inside the top 10 in point standings.
Many inside the garage would agree the final 10 weeks of the season are the most intense that a driver and team go through. But the answer varies about whether the current format makes it easier or harder to win the championship.
“It’s easier if you have the bonus points,” said Denny Hamlin. “I think there’s four or five guys that got a significant amount of playoff points and so it definitely will be easier for them to get through the first couple rounds. It’s just different. One race, and anything can happen.”
Hamlin has competed under every version of the playoffs, and in 2010 led the standings going into the season finale but lost to Jimmie Johnson. That season the playoffs involved of 12 drivers and was a straight 10-week battle. In ’14, Hamlin was a part of the first Championship 4.
“Well, I think it’s different for other teams,” said Kyle Larson. “For me, this format would be easier to win a championship because right now I’m so far out of the points for the top spot, I wouldn’t have a shot to win. The playoffs give teams like us an opportunity to go win a championship.
“But then for a team like (Joey) Logano or Kyle Busch or those few fighting for the season-long points, this might be tougher for them to win because when the playoffs reset, there’s more guys that have an opportunity to have things go their way and get a championship. So, it’s just an exciting format, and it’s easy for the fans to follow along, too.”
Larson has competed under the two most recent playoff formats, which are basically the same except for the addition of the playoff points. Reseeded, he starts this year’s postseason 11th in the standings, 40 points behind the leader. Before the reset, Larson was over 250 points out of the championship hunt.
Neither Hamlin nor Larson have won a championship. The story is different for Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kurt Busch, who can talk all about how the playoffs once were. Busch was the inaugural playoff champion when NASCAR switched to that format in 2004, and at that time there were only 10 drivers eligible for the title with a straight 10-week battle. That format lasted until 2007, when the field expanded to 12 drivers. From 2011-13 it was still a total of 12 drivers, but it was the top 10 in points plus what were labeled as two wild cards.
“The current format makes it to where you have to earn bonus points in the regular season, and then those bonus points carry with you through the playoffs, so it actually hurts the effort of the playoff atmosphere in my mind,” said Busch. “When we had a system of 10 weeks straight, that was basically a clean slate for everybody, and then you start earning points from there and showcase your skills over a 10-week run. Now, you have those bonus points, and they get lumped together with a three-race stretch. In a three-race run, you could have an O-ring go bad on a rear-end seal, and you’re knocked out for the year. So those are the tougher consequences that come up with this system.”
Busch understands going from 10 to 16 drivers, acknowledging there’s a need to make more teams feel like they are a part of the playoff atmosphere.
“But it’s tough,” he continued. “I feel like three races in one little lump is too short and the consequences are too high. Things can be adjusted possibly in the future, where a playoff run in NASCAR might just be five-weeks straight and it could be a challenge of five different style tracks.”
Busch was one of seven former champions who faced the question of whether the elimination-style format is easier or harder to win a championship. Like Busch, the other six also won their championship in the playoff era.
Jimmie Johnson, 2006-2010, ’13, ‘16
Johnson has not only competed under every iteration of the playoffs but has won titles under multiple formats.
His first came in ’06 when it was 10 drivers and 10 weeks. His next four came after the field was expanded to 12 drivers. Title number six was also when it was 12 drivers but under the wild card policy. The seventh was under the first iteration of 16 drivers in the postseason.
“I think it’s harder,” said Johnson. “I think playoff-style is much more difficult, and I think there’s been some good examples of it over the years where maybe a favorite doesn’t have what they need to in the final race or the final few races and it swings the other way.”
Brad Keselowski, 2012
On his way to winning his first championship, Keselowski had to beat 11 other drivers over 10 weeks. He said the format is both easy and hard.
“It’s a little bit like taking a deck of cards – Kyle Petty gave me this analogy so I’m going to borrow it – and just facing off against the world’s best card players in a game of high draw. Still the world’s best card players, just a game of high draw.”
Kevin Harvick, 2014
Harvick was the first driver crowned under the elimination format by winning the title and the race in Miami. He is also one of two drivers who have made a Championship 4 appearance in four of the past five years.
“It’s different, and that’s really the only way that you can explain it because it’s more fun to watch from a fan’s perspective, and I think everybody understands that,” said Harvick. “It’s no different than any other sport – you have to evolve, and in the end, we are in the entertainment business, and we have to have people watching in order to put sponsors on the car and butts in the seats. Those are the number one priority. So in order to keep up with the times, you had to keep up with what people think are exciting and I think the format is exciting.
“I think it’s obviously from a competitor’s standpoint very intense and it’s hard to get to the final four, and so for us it’s really once you get in the playoffs it’s more of a survive and advance mentality. I think however you do that, whether it looks good on paper or not, you just have to get to the next round and that’s much different than ‘collect as many points as you can and try to get to the end of the year’, as it was previously.”
Kyle Busch, 2015
Busch has also been in the Championship 4 the last four years and believes the elimination format is the second-hardest one NASCAR has had.
“The absolute hardest was when you had to go through the playoff rounds and you didn’t have playoff points,” he said. “I feel like now at least with the playoff points your season and what you do through the season is a bit more fair, and it’s not all indicative to just how you are per round.”
Busch, Harvick and the next driver have proven how valuable playoff points are by stacking up enough of them during the regular season to provide an insurance policy on getting to Miami.
Martin Truex Jr., 2017
While Truex has been among the Championship 4 in three of the last five years, he knows the heartbreak of the format. After top-13 finishes in the first two races of the second round in 2016, Truex did not advance when he DNF’d in the third race. This was one year before NASCAR instituted playoff points – which Truex gobbled up on ’17 to all but ensure his Miami spot before the playoffs had even begun.
“It’s definitely harder,” he said. “It’s really, really difficult to put together all those races in high-pressure situations. If you have a bad one, it could possibly take you out of an opportunity at a championship. [In] 2016 we felt like we were capable and had a great season, and we lost an engine at Talladega early and found ourselves like two points from transferring, whatever it was. It was close.
“It’s definitely tougher this way. The old format with points racing for the whole season is tough as well because you have to be consistent, but you know if you have one bad race somewhere it’s not the end of the world. The playoffs are pretty crazy.”
Joey Logano, 2018
The defending champion showed another side of the format in Martinsville last fall – do whatever it takes to get to Miami. By playing bumper tag with Truex in the first race of the third round to win, Logano clinched his championship opportunity. Had Logano played nice in Martinsville, he would have been in danger of not advancing because of a disastrous finish in the final race of the round at ISM Raceway.
“I’m going to say harder. Harder for multiple reasons,” said Logano. “You used to be able to have a bad race within the 10, and now you still can, but then you have to follow it up with a win, and that’s what makes it tough. You used to have nine races to make up for your bad race; now you have two races or maybe one. So, you’re put in these do-or-die moments more often, and for sure there’s always going to be one do-or-die moment when you get to Miami.
“You might have to go through that three times in 10 weeks, you might have to go through that four times in 10 weeks, but those moments are what makes playoffs great. And with this elimination format, I think it makes it way more entertaining for the fans and more stressful for us as competitors, which is good. It should be that way. It shouldn’t be easy, and I don’t think it should be all about consistency. It rewards consistency but also rewards bringing your game when you most need it.”
Easier or harder, the format certainly leaves little room for error in the first nine weeks before requiring a team to rise to the occasion when nothing matters but getting to the finish line first in Miami. In 10 weeks if this question were posed to the newly-crowned Cup Series champion, perhaps another kind of answer would emerge.