Under NASCAR rules, a driver must compete in all 26 regular season races to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Except as a driver, of course may still make the playoffs despite missing one or more regular-season races.
If NASCAR ever had a “rule” that was a rule in name only and little more than a smokescreen, it’s the rule that states that a driver must be perfectly present for the first 26 races in order to compete a spot in the 16th driver playoff field.
In reality, almost any regular-season driver can miss as many races as they like and not lose a minute of sleep wondering if NASCAR will grant them a playoff “waiver” — an exception to the rule that states that a driver must take the green flag in every regular-season race to remain in the playoff chase.
When NASCAR announced a few days ago that Chase Elliott — who missed the last six races but returns to competition this weekend in Martinsville — would be the latest in a long line of waivers, no one was surprised. And that includes NASCAR’s most popular driver himself.
After all, it’s pretty much assumed that any driver who misses the time will get a time off – regardless of their reason for missing out.
But why have a “rule” at all if it’s never applied?
The precedent justified Chase Elliott’s waiver, but NASCAR set the wrong precedent
Chase Elliott’s retirement follows the Hendrick Motorsports driver who was sidelined for a month and a half with a fractured tibia in his left leg. Elliott suffered the injury while snowboarding in Colorado.
While we can argue at length about whether snowboarding is too dangerous an activity for Elliott to warrant a waiver, to deny him that would have been a departure from a precedent NASCAR has set for many years.
How many years? Well, back in 2015, Kyle Busch received a waiver after breaking his leg and foot in a violent crash at the NASCAR Xfinity Series race in Daytona in February. Busch missed the first 11 races of the year’s Cup Series, including the Daytona 500, but won five races and the championship.
The following year, 2016, Tony Stewart received a time off after missing eight races while recovering from a fracture he sustained to his L1 vertebra in an off-road accident. Stewart didn’t win the championship, but he did win one race in the regular season, earning him entry into the playoffs for his final season.
Since then, NASCAR has granted drivers waivers for various issues – both on and off the track – that have caused them to miss time in the regular season. So I ask again: What’s the point of having a rule that is never enforced?
To save face, NASCAR needs to clarify the waiver rule or drop it altogether
So what exactly does a NASCAR Cup Series driver need to do to avoid receiving a waiver as a matter of principle?
To commit a crime? Punch a NASCAR officer in the face? Overslept and missed the race? Failed a drug test?
As if it weren’t ridiculous enough to receive a waiver for an injury sustained in a non-race related – and therefore entirely unnecessary – extracurricular activity, it is even theoretically possible for a driver who is suspended in the regular season to still made the playoffs.
NASCAR says it grants exceptions on a case-by-case basis, but it seems like it’s going to take a pretty drastic case for the sanctioning body to actually say “no.”
But perhaps instead of handing out waivers at will for anything but a hangnail, NASCAR should reserve those exceptions for drivers who have to sit out due to an unavoidable health issue (cancer, COVID-19, etc.), family emergency, or other injury that requires suffered in a NASCAR sanctioned event.
Anything else and it’s bad luck and try again next year. While that might seem a little harsh, it would discourage riders – like Chase Elliott and Tony Stewart – from risking their health to chase a thrill no better than the one they got at 200 miles per Sunday afternoon experience hour. It would also make drivers think twice before doing anything that could result in a suspension (where are you, Bubba Wallace?)
Last but not least, by establishing clear guidelines on circumstances justifying a waiver, NASCAR will be able to justify at least one rule stating that a driver must be perfectly present in the regular season to qualify for the playoffs.
Without offering that needed clarification, NASCAR should simply abandon that rule altogether. For a rule to be legitimate or taken seriously, it must first be applied—on a regular basis. And that hasn’t been the case for a long time.