“It needs to have a bigger sample size.” You might expect that from a statistics nerd, but Denny Hamlin said it. He was addressing questions raised by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download last fall about changing the playoff format.
“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”
NASCAR is not like other sports
Under points systems up to 2003, a driver could secure the championship before the season’s final race. NASCAR’s playoff structure eliminates that possibility.
The last 10 races build excitement through multiple elimination rounds and lay the groundwork for more of those elusive “Game 7 moments.”
Just like other sports.
But NASCAR isn’t “just like” other sports.
The first difference is the field of play. Every NFL game is played on basically the same field. The difference between artificial and natural turf is minuscule compared to the difference between Talladega and Bristol.
Even if NASCAR rotates the season’s final track, some drivers have an advantage at some tracks. Weather limits the tracks that can host a November race.
Forcing NASCAR into the mold established by other sports misses a chance to highlight racing’s differences.
Leverage NASCAR’s uniqueness to change the playoff format
When teams compete in twos, the number of teams in each playoff round is limited to powers of two: two, four, 8, 16, 32, 64. The graphic below shows NASCAR’s current playoff structure.
Because NASCAR is different, it can have as many teams and rounds of playoffs as it wants.
Hamlin (and others) propose ending the season with a round instead of a race. The next graphic shows one possibility for changing the playoff format.
There are three rounds instead of four, and different numbers of races before eliminations.
There are many possibilities, but I chose a system with 14 drivers. Since 2017, when the playoffs started in their current form:
- Only one of the six drivers entering the playoffs at 16th finished better than 11th. Kevin Harvick is the exception, finishing fifth in 2021.
- No driver entering the playoffs in 15th finished the season better than seventh.
The number of drivers could be cut even more.
- Of the six drivers entering the playoffs as 14th seeds, none finished better than fifth.
- The highest-ranked driver entering the playoffs to make it into the Championship Four was Christopher Bell, who came into the 2022 playoffs ranked 10th.
Cutting the number of drivers in the playoffs is unlikely to impact the championship contenders.
I have only two races before the first cut because drivers making the playoffs with a single superspeedway, road course or dirt win rarely last very long before being eliminated. Darlington and Kansas are perfect tracks for this purpose.
I’d also require drivers to win two races before becoming eligible for an automatic playoff berth instead of the current one race.
Five superspeedway-style races, five road courses, and one dirt race made up 42.3% of the 2022 regular season schedule. Winning a single race doesn’t prove a driver is championship-contender material.
I’d fill the remainder of the slots with the drivers with the most points, regardless of wins.
Game 7 moments?
I have six drivers competing in the final four races. More drivers mean less chance of one driver running away with the championship. Make Talladega the first or second just to liven things up. Put Talladega too late in a round and the drivers will spend most of the race protecting their cars for the end rather than racing.
Only once since 1990 has one driver won the first three of the last four races. In 2007, Jimmie Johnson did one better: he won the first four of the season’s last five races.
One driver won the first two of the last three races three times since 1990.
- Johnson (2007)
- Tony Stewart (1999)
- Davey Allison (1991)
Although the possibility of missing a “Game 7 moment” remains, it’s small.
Don’t underestimate the fans
One argument often made against changing the playoff format (or any other type of change) is that it would “require too much math” or “confuse the fans.”
NASCAR does an excellent job of disseminating information, especially statistics. NASCAR’s broadcast partners employ their own specialists, who not only do the math, but also explain it in the clearest possible ways.
And if my modification of the playoffs is too complex, let’s talk about the arcane Daytona 500 qualifying process or recent All-Star Race rules.
Hamlin was a little reticent to speak out on the issue of changing the playoffs because changes would likely benefit him.
But I don’t have a dog in this race, and I think he’s right.