Newfound Next Gen parity exposes weakness in Playoff format

Newfound Next Gen parity exposes weakness in Playoff format
Courtesy of Toyota Racing

Chase Elliott had the third worst average finish in the Round of 16 among the surviving 12 drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

He wrecked on his own at Darlington Raceway and finished last. After a mediocre qualifying effort of 22nd at Kansas Speedway, Elliott finished sixth and fifth, respectively, in the first two stages before posting an 11th-place result. His only top-five finish in the first elimination round was second at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night.

So how is Elliott leading the Playoff standings entering the Round of 12? The answer is simple: After winning the regular season title, Elliott received a 15-point bump in addition to five points for each of his four wins and five points for his five stage wins.

The bottom line is that Elliott is being rewarded once again for his performance in the regular season and not being penalized one iota for a substandard performance in the Playoffs' opening round.

The flip side is Christopher Bell, whose average finish of fourth in the Round of 16 was tops among all Playoff drivers. Bell, who led 143 laps on Saturday night and scored more points in the opening round than any other driver, isn't close to the top of the standings entering the Round of 12.

Yes, Bell earned two Playoff points for stage wins in the Round of 16, but after the post-round reseeding, he's tied with Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney for sixth in the Playoff standings and on the bubble for advancement to the Round of 8--just four points ahead of Chase Briscoe in ninth place. 

Despite widely divergent results in the Round of 16, the top six on the Playoff grid are the same drivers that were seeded in the top six when the postseason started at Darlington. The points these drivers accumulated throughout the first 26 races have provided a nearly impenetrable buffer unless one of the lower Playoff competitors wins. 

So Elliott, who used his mulligan at Darlington, gets it back to start the next round. And relatively speaking, Bell gets a negligible benefit for his excellent performance in the Round of 16.

The newfound parity NASCAR has achieved with the Next Gen car has exposed a weakness in the Playoffs' format. For the first time under the current format, non-Playoff drivers won each of the three races in the opening round, preventing Playoff drivers from gaining immediate advancement to the next round and accumulating significant Playoff points by virtue of a victory. There was no "walk-off homer" from a Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick to stave off elimination.

In essence, the 12 drivers who advanced to the second round are in identical or nearly identical positions to those with which they started the Round of 16. Despite posting the 10th-best average finish in the first round, Chase Elliott has been restored to the top of the standings, with a 15-point buffer over second-place Joey Logano--just as the two drivers started the Playoffs.

Beyond eliminating four drivers from the postseason, the Round of 16 had scant effect on the Playoff standings, and that's the weakness of the system, a weakness no one noticed when Playoff drivers were winning the vast majority of Playoff races and advancing to subsequent rounds via those victories.

NASCAR introduced the elimination format in 2014 in an attempt to emulate more closely Playoffs in the stick-and-ball sports. But in stick-and-ball sports, once the regular season ends, what happens in the postseason is of paramount importance. Under NASCAR's format, what happened in the regular season continues to govern positions in the standings in a system that restores Playoff points to each of the drivers to start a subsequent round.  

The poster child is Elliott, who starts the Round of 12 with the same 40 Playoff points he carried into the Round of 16. That has the potential to carry him a long way in the postseason. For those who advocate that the championship should be based on a driver’s body of work, that’s a good thing--to a point. 

But shouldn't the body of work include what happened in the first round of the Playoffs? 

If NASCAR wants to reward drivers for their performance in the Playoffs, then perhaps the driver who accumulates the most points in the round should receive a bonus of sorts as well. Why not give the driver who scores the most points in the opening round 15 Playoff points, with 10 for second, eight for third, etc., just as with the regular season. That would place the proper emphasis on performance in the individual rounds of the Playoffs. Then continue that system through each round until the Championship 4.

Certainly, regular-season performance should count--but so should excellence in the Playoff races. Currently, that's not the case.
 

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