I’ll admit that I’m a NASCAR fan. I’ve been watching races for over 30 years. People say it’s boring watching cars drive in circles, but there’s something about the technical aspect and competition of the racing that intrigues me. It’s also amazing to watch how the drivers can handle the cars. Those guys have serious skills.
Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the playoff system that NASCAR used this year to determine its champion. I was never a big fan of the original Chase concept, but I tolerated it. The new playoff system has made it worse. Playoffs are not the way you crown a racing champion.
Racing has variation
In most other sports, the playing surface is fixed. In baseball, the bases are always 90 ft apart and the mound is 60’6″ from home plate. A football field is 100 yards long. A basketball court is 94 feet. A hockey rink is 200 feet long. No matter where you go to play, you know what to expect when you get there.
Racing is a different animal, much like golf. The tracks are different every week. Some are 2.5 mile super speedways, some 1/2-mile short tracks, others road courses. The reason why it takes a season to crown a champion is that you want to see which driver can master all the different types of tracks. Under NASCAR’s current system, you could win one race during the “regular season” and then win the last race and be the champion. While this may be exciting for fans, it certainly does not equate to the definition of a series champion.
Racing isn’t head-to-head
One response to the playoff system is that in other sports the best team doesn’t always win the championship. I disagree.
In other sports, teams don’t always get to play each other, so it makes sense that the champion is settled on the field. For example, in the NCAA basketball championship, it’s unlikely that the two teams in the final have played during the year. The same can be said for both baseball and football. Basketball and hockey teams will have played each other, but only twice. In their championship, the winner is crowned in a best-of-seven series.
In racing, drivers compete against the field every week. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, two of this year’s final drivers, didn’t race against just once this season. They raced against each other all season long. You don’t need one race to determine who the better driver is. You already know based on the results from all year long.
Playoffs are about ratings
It’s clear why NASCAR has moved to this new system. It’s about TV ratings and money. They are not interested in determining who the best driver is and crowning that person as the champion. They are interested in finding ways to juice TV ratings, increase fan interest, and bring more money to the sport.
Of course, they need to bring the money in to make sure the drivers and teams are paid, but they are also lowering the bar for what it means to be a champion. It’s also having the opposite effect of increasing interest, at least for long time fans. I’ve lost interest, and from the responses I’ve seen on message boards, I’m not alone.
While I get the rationale, NASCAR is going about it all wrong.
If my opinion mattered
NASCAR should implement a system that is closer to golf. Golf shares a lot of similarities with racing, one being that they’re slow TV sports. Golf has tried to liven up their ratings with the FedEx Cup, which takes a similar approach to the NASCAR playoff system. However, the winner of the FedEx Cup is not considered the golfer of the year. In some years they’re the same, but take last year as an example. Billy Horschel won the FedEx Cup, but Rory McIlroy was the PGA Tour Player of the Year. McIlroy clearly had the better year winning multiple major championships, while Horschel got hot at the right time to win the Cup.
NASCAR could adopt a similar system. The series champion would be the driver who accumulated the most points over the course of the entire season while the Chase winner would be determined through the playoff, or any other system that NASCAR wants to put in place. There may even be years where the same driver wins both. To me, it’s the system that is the best of both worlds.
I’m not going to give up on NASCAR and racing. It’s in my blood. I enjoy it too much. I’ll stick around and watch races, but I’m not going to get excited about the playoff. It’s a gimmick meant to increase TV ratings and money. In my opinion, the champion is the driver who is consistently good all season long, across all types of tracks and surfaces they race on.