Matt Kensethâs 2003 NASCAR Cup Series championship remains the final Cup Series championship won without playoffs in effect, and it likely will for the foreseeable future. The following year, NASCAR introduced the playoffs, leading to a Kurt Busch championship, one that wouldnât have happened without them.
The 10-race playoff format has changed over the years, most recently ahead of the 2014 season with the introduction of the round-by-round elimination format that also includes the Championship 4, guaranteeing a four-driver shootout in the season finale where the highest finishing of the four drivers in the seasonâs 36th and final race is guaranteed to be the champion.
In 16 seasons of playoffs, the points champions have only matched the official champions on seven occasions. In fact, NASCARâs all-time titles list would look a lot different had the playoffs not been implemented when the were.
Most notably, four-time champion Jeff Gordon would be one of three seven-time champions, and Jimmie Johnson, who is actually one of three seven-time champions, would only be a three-time champion.
There are several other interesting differences as well.
Every year, the question is asked again and again, and as long as Kensethâs title remains the most recent championship won without playoffs in effect, it will continue to be asked.
Should NASCAR get rid of the playoffs?
The purpose of the playoffs, which have been taken as somewhat of a gimmick over the years, especially over the course of the last six, is to make the championship battle more competitive and closer to the end, with the last six seasons including the guarantee that the title will not have already been locked up entering the season finale.
They have served that purpose, as five of the 16 championships decided during the playoff era would have been locked up before the season finale had the playoffs not been in place.
But at the same time, even with playoffs serving as somewhat of an equalizer, five of these 16 championship battles would have actually been closer without the points reset(s) utilized by the playoffs.
The 2019 seasonâs battle was one of them, despite the fact that we are in the sixth season of the âwinner-take-allâ Championship 4 era.
Kyle Busch won the championship by five points over Martin Truex Jr., as he won the season finale ahead of Truex in second place at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Five points is the thinnest possible winning margin in this era. But had regular points been utilized throughout the 36-race season, he would have won the championship by just two points over Kevin Harvick.
Is that not the competitiveness NASCAR wants?
On a positive note, playoffs also reward the clutch factor, as they place a heavy emphasis on rewarding the drivers who perform well at the right time.
Yes, the elimination format can ruin a driverâs season because rounds are just three races long and thus one error could be huge. But at the same time, losing points to the competition with an error in a regular 36-race format can also prove detrimental in the long run.
With that being said, having two races to make up a boatload of points is a little bit different than having 35.
Another argument against the playoffs is the fact that NASCAR isnât a mainstream sport like football, basketball, baseball or hockey. It is true that you never hear fans of these sports screaming to eliminate the playoffs, nor do you ever read articles such as âWho would have been Super Bowl champion without the playoffs?â
In that way, why not have the playoffs?
But the difference is the fact that in those sports, you play one of several dozen teams every week. In NASCAR and other forms of racing, you drive against every other team and driver in every race. Kyle Busch doesnât race Kevin Harvick one week and Denny Hamlin the next.
You donât see Truex or Hamlin clinching a #1 seed with an easy âstrength of scheduleâ, and you donât mark your calendar for the annual Busch vs. Harvick clash.
As far as âother forms of racingâ are concerned, would you ever see a series such as IndyCar or Formula 1 implement âplayoffsâ to determined the champion?
Iâll tell you one thing: if you did, youâd also see a lot fewer fans in the stands.
Two more positives of the playoffs are the unmistakable tension and drama added due to the elimination format, tension and drama that would not exist, at least not to the extend that they do now, without said format.
But this also takes away from the key aspect of racing: racing.
Look at Johnson at the Charlotte Motor Speedway roval in 2018. He had a round of 12 spot locked up running in second place to Truex on the final lap. But by trying to win the race, he prioritized the race itself over the playoff format, and what happened?
He missed out on the round of 12.
Drivers have become complacent with running in a position âgood enoughâ to advance, and when they arenât, like Johnson, they are penalized for it.
Ryan Newman nearly won the 2014 championship without finishing a single race in the top two until he finished in second place in the season finale. Austin Dillon won the 2013 Xfinity Series championship and Matt Crafton won the 2019 Truck Series championship despite enduring winless seasons.
Winning an individual race has simply lost its luster in the playoff era, and this could not possibly be more ironic considering the fact that we are now in the âwin-and-advanceâ playoff format.
Itâs almost inexplicable how NASCAR has played itself in this way, yet here we are with a clear picture of it on almost a weekly basis during the playoffs.
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Should NASCAR get rid of the playoffs? The playoffs will likely stick around for the foreseeable future despite the fact that they havenât grown the sport even with what was supposed to be an appeal to non-fans, but a strong case could be made for both sides considering everything that the playoffs provide and leave to be desired.