In 2022, NASCAR had arguably its most exciting playoff race since the format was changed in 2014 to include 16 drivers.
With the exception of Ryan Blaney, everyone who got there had to earn their place. Blaney would have joined Martin Truex, Jr. in shockingly missing the cut if Kurt Busch hadn’t been sidelined with an injury. Sixteen drivers won during the 26-race regular season and three others earned playoff victories.
This season, however, parity has returned to average with few upset winners. Additionally, playoff regulars Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman combined to miss 10 races while normal bubble riders such as Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe were all hit with huge run penalties for taking them out of the race.
Where did that leave NASCAR? With Michael McDowell, AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Suarez and rookie Ty Gibbs currently fight for the last playoff spot.
None of these names inspire much excitement as drivers worthy of competing for a championship, and either of them are unlikely to make it past the first lap if they qualify. They would be the running equivalent of an under .500 NFL or NBA team making the playoffs – cool that they got there, but really just filling the field.
This is a problem that arises from time to time with NASCAR’s current playoff format, during seasons that lack competitive depth. In 2015, Paul Ménard made the playoffs on points and no one thought for two seconds that he would go very far. Ditto for Ryan Newman in 2019.
Drivers who have come from deep in the standings to earn their place with a surprising victory have also been known to die out as near-automatic first-lap exits. Think Chris Buescher in 2016, Cole Custer in 2020 or McDowell in 2021.
The problem here is simple: NASCAR has too many entries in its playoff system. Most years there won’t be 16 or more drivers who can possibly push for a championship, and no one wants to see the fight for the last spots turn into a race between mediocrities.
Back when the playoffs were first introduced in 2004 as the Chase for the Cup, only 10 drivers qualified and there was no win-and-go rule; it was simply the top 10 drivers in points after 26 races. In 2007 the field was expanded to 12, then in 2011 the bottom two positions were turned into “wild card” slots for drivers who won a race between 11th and 20th in points. This created exciting battles in which big names regularly had to fight for their lives in the playoffs.
Making the playoffs in any sport should be a real feat. It should mean you’ve been playing at a high level all season and have a legitimate shot at winning a championship. Nobody should be just happy to be there – but that’s the situation NASCAR has created this year.