NASCAR gambled when it changed its points and playoff format for the third time in seven years before the 2017 season.
After touting the simplicity of its points format for the previous six seasons, NASCAR went complicated when it decided to break races into three stages. Drivers could win up to 10 points in each of the first two stages in addition to earning points from their finishing position at the end of the race. And the winner of each stage got a bonus point to carry into the playoffs.
Yeah, that sounds a bit complicated even before we get into the changes NASCAR made to the bonus point structure for the playoffs. Before 2017, drivers earned five playoff points per regular season win, but those points only counted in the first of the playoff system’s four rounds.
Starting this season, those playoff win points and the newfound stage win points counted for the playoff’s first three rounds. The only race they didn’t matter at was the winner-take-all championship finale.
The moves had two fairly simple motives. NASCAR wanted fans to have more incentive to pay attention during the first half of races and drivers to have more incentive to race hard. Second, the bonus points were modified to increase the chances of the season’s four best teams and drivers to compete for the title at Homestead.
Consider that second objective accomplished.
Martin Truex Jr.’s championship Sunday night was a ringing endorsement of NASCAR’s changes. The driver of the No. 78 had by far the best season of anyone in the Cup Series. His win Sunday night was his eighth of the season — meaning Truex had won 25 percent of the season’s races. No driver had done that since Denny Hamlin in 2010.
Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn also proved themselves the most adept at stage racing too. Truex led the series in stage wins (19) and had the most top-five and top-10 finishes of any driver. His 69 playoff points amassed through the first two races of the third round meant he was mathematically (and deservedly) clinched into the finale before his car even took to the track at Phoenix a week ago.
The guys he beat for the championship were worthy participants as well. Kyle Busch, who finished second to Truex, won five races and 14 stages. Brad Keselowski won three races and eight stages while Kevin Harvick had two victories and seven stage wins. Only Harvick, in sixth, was seeded outside the top four when the 16-driver playoffs began.
The changes paid off in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series as well. Xfinity champion William Byron won four races in 2017; no other regular in the series had more than two. Christopher Bell, the truck champion, had the most wins (5), top-five finishes (15) and top-10 finishes (21) of anyone in the series.
Byron can be considered an impetus for NASCAR’s rule changes. He won seven races a year ago in the Truck Series — no other driver won more than three — but wasn’t in the final race because he blew an engine in the final race of the third round. Keselowski and Truex can relate. Their playoff fortunes disappeared a year ago at Talladega because of engine issues.
A playoff format in a sport with a lengthy season like NASCAR is always going to have flaws. No matter how hard a sport tries, its champion will never always be the season’s best team. Just look at the undefeated New England Patriots who lost in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. Or Kyle Larson’s second-round elimination in this year’s playoffs. Larson had four wins in 2017.
And in NASCAR’s case, its attempt at making the format fairer come also comes at that cost of complexity. NBC was still explaining to fans on its broadcasts how points were awarded at Phoenix, the 35th of 36 Cup Series races. Tallying up the points standings is now more than simple math for even the most astute of observers.
But the complexity was a fair trade in 2017 and would have been even if Busch ran down Truex for the title. The championship came down to the season’s two best drivers racing each other for a race win without a caution inside the last 20 laps to set up a sprint to the finish. That’s a pretty good first-year result.
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