- NASCAR received a boost of energy from this year’s playoffs, which have been anything but boring.
- Ross Chastain’s video-game move that saved his season was just the latest huge moment.
- Not everybody is crazy about the playoffs, as they don’t always crown the best driver.
While the NASCAR playoffs may not crown the best driver of the year, nobody can accuse them of being boring, especially this year.
The latest example came on Sunday in the season’s penultimate race to decide which four drivers would compete for the championship in Phoenix this week.
Facing elimination, Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain needed to pass at least two cars on the final half-lap to stay alive in the playoffs. He did that — and more — when he floored it and used the wall to slingshot past five cars and into the championship.
—NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 30, 2022
While Chastain’s “video-game move” was the most notable and controversial moment of the playoffs yet, it was just the most recent of many.
Earlier in the playoffs, NASCAR found itself in a huge mess with two playoff drivers when William Byron spun Denny Hamlin during a caution.
—NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 26, 2022
The move cost Hamlin valuable playoff points — it was Hamlin, who was eliminated from the championship by four points thanks to Chastain’s wild ride — and also briefly moved Byron into the elimination zone when he was docked 25 points after the race for the move.
NASCAR later gave the points back to Byron after his appeal of the penalty. That moved him back up and in front of two other drivers, who briefly thought they were closer to advancing to the Final Four.
Controversy also struck in the first round of the playoffs when Chase Briscoe advanced to the Round of 8 thanks to some help from a teammate who appeared to intentionally slow down in front of other cars to help Briscoe pass. That move eliminated defending champion Kyle Larson from the playoffs.
—Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) October 9, 2022
NASCAR fined the teammate, Cole Custer, $100,000 and suspended his crew chief for impacting the race’s outcome. However, they stopped short of dropping Briscoe from the playoffs and re-inserting Larson, claiming that the move did not impact the playoff standings.
And those were just the most notable moments among playoff drivers. We also saw Bubba Wallace elevate his status to Public Enemy No. 1 in NASCAR by intentionally wrecking Larson. Wallace was suspended and lustily booed in his return.
We also saw two near-disasters on pit road in the playoffs. The first came when Ty Gibbs lost his cool and nearly pushed Chris Buescher into a group of crew members working on a car. Later, Martin Truex Jr almost missed his pit stall thanks to the sun in his eyes and was spun by Larson, nearly taking out his crew members who got back across the wall just in the nick of time.
—NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 23, 2022
Not everybody likes the playoffs
But while the playoffs have been entertaining, some in the NASCAR world miss the old format, which simply gave the championship to the driver who earned the most points throughout the season.
According to Dirty Mo Media’s “Door Bumper Clear,” NASCAR veteran Hamlin, considered the best active driver yet to win a championship, said he would rather reach 60 wins than a title. The show quoted Hamlin as saying he values the wins more and the championship less than he had “because of the way they crown the champion.”
Hamlin, 41, has 48 career wins, and 12 more would move him into the top 10.
NASCAR spotter and show host TJ Majors poo-pooed the statement a bit, noting that Hamlin will “value the hell out of it” if he ever does win a championship. However, he also noted that the trophy’s lure has changed.
“It’s hard to argue with him,” Majors said. “The championship doesn’t have the same luster it once had, when it was a season-long battle. Last year’s champion was decided by a pit stop…. Winning 60 races — you talk about winning three Daytona 500s — I feel like that is more prestigious. I’d rather have 60 wins than, ‘Oh, I won a race off pit road.’”
The pit stop Majors referenced is the final one of the championship race in 2021, when Kyle Larson’s pit crew pulled off their fastest stop of the season, jumping him from fourth to first with 24 laps to go. Larson held on to win the race and the title.
F1 is proof that a season-long title can be anti-climatic
The obvious comparison is Formula One, where the drivers’ championship is awarded on total points from the season. While that is a better way to crown the “best” driver, it is not a flawless system, as this year’s series has shown.
Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen clinched his second-straight championship with nearly 20% of the season remaining (four races). His record-setting 14 wins show he deserved to win the title, but it also took a lot of energy out of the season’s final races.
Of course, a season-long title can still be dramatic, as we saw last year, when Verstappen won the championship by passing Lewis Hamilton on the season’s final lap. But in a non-playoff world, that is the exception and not the norm.
So, are motorsports better with a playoff format? There is no right or wrong answer. But ultimately, maybe soccer does it best where they have multiple trophies, including season-long championships and separate playoff-like tournaments.
In the meantime, no matter who wins the NASCAR championship, the playoffs this year have been entertaining, and that is good for the sport.
—Alanis King (@alanisnking) November 1, 2022