AVONDALE, Ariz. – When William Bryon’s engine exploded with 12 laps remaining in Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race, it exposed the greatest of fault lines in NASCAR’s playoff structure.
And it could rupture in a full-blown implosion of intractably poor optics in the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Since switching the Chase for the Sprint Cup (which was christened in the truck and Xfinity circuits this year) to a system of eliminations and points resets, the danger always loomed of a driver consistently beating the competition before falling prey to a fluky finish that short-circuits a title bid.
There have been other examples – Jimmie Johnson’s axle seal failure at Dover leaps to mind – over the past three seasons, but none resonated as much as Byron’s plight.
It’s not just that the Bryon has as many victories (six) this season as the remaining four title contenders combined.
In the previous five races of the playoff, Byron finished higher than at least one of those four contenders every time. Twice, the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver’s No. 9 Toyota was the group’s highest finisher.
So now what happens if the 18-year-old rising star, who is headed to Hendrick Motorsports and surely would be a highly desirable asset as champion in NASCAR’s desperate marketing push for Millennials, manages to win the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
Bryon will have won twice in the Chase and finished in the top 10 of every other event except Phoenix – where a faulty part late in the race kept him out of victory lane after leading 112 of 150 laps.
The championship never will have seemed more arbitrary and less valid.
The most tired trope trotted out to defend the current Chase is that a favorite eliminated in such a manner as Byron was would be the equivalent of the New England Patriots’ undefeated season ending in a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
This is nonsense.
Byron’s situation is much more analogous to the Cleveland Indians winning the first six games of the World Series but losing the championship to the Chicago Cubs because they were forced to play a seventh game and lost.
It is possible (though certainly not plausible) that a driver could win the first nine races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, lead the first 266 laps of the finale and lose the championship because of an engine failure at the white flag.
That is why NASCAR’s playoffs are fundamentally different. Some of these factors might be more applicable to the truck Chase, which has the smallest sample sizes of drivers (eight to start) and races (seven) — but the underpinnings of this playoff structure always make these scenarios possible.
There are no “real” eliminations, there is only ineligibility. Everybody keeps playing (as they should; racing doesn’t lend itself to heightened drama by reducing the field), increasing the possibility that a supremely worthy candidate’s chances can be doomed by suspect circumstances.
That’s why Friday night’s stunning twist felt unlike any other.
And that’s why next week’s coronation in South Florida will ring especially hollow if Byron wins – and surpasses the 2016 victory total for the championship four – while another driver is crowned champion.