Changes im­proved flawed Cup play­offs

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NASCAR REPORT - Randy Hall­man

I’ve com­plained about NAS­CAR’s play­off sys­tem for months, years even, but I want to be fair. This year, stock car rac­ing’s bosses have im­proved the path to the cham­pi­onship de­cid­ing race. It didn’t take a ge­nius to make the up­grade. All NAS­CAR had to do was lis­ten to a lot of fans who said:

Add an­other un­der-amile short track to the 10race play­offs.

Throw in a race on a road course.

Chuck out at least one of the 1.5-mile tracks. So it did.

And, yes, I’m pleased be­cause the added short­track event is the Sept. 22 Fed­er­ated Auto Parts 400 right in my back­yard at Richmond Raceway. Much eas­ier for me to get to a play­off event now.

But even if the ¾-mile D-shaped Richmond track were some­where else, it’s the ideal ad­di­tion to the play­off lineup. Its length is unique in the Cup Se­ries, adding to the va­ri­ety of skills the driv­ers need to ad­vance.

The Richmond event means there are now two short-track play­off events — the other is the Oct. 28 First Data 500 at the halfmile pa­per-clip-shaped Martinsville Speedway. That makes Vir­ginia the only state with two play­off races, fit­ting since it’s the only state with four Cup races an­nu­ally.

The added road course is at Charlotte Mo­tor Speedway. Rather than rac­ing on the tra­di­tional 1.5-mile oval, for the first time a NAS­CAR Cup race will be held on the fa­cil­ity’s 17-turn, 2.28-mile road course.

They call it the “Ro­val” be­cause the cars run much of the oval, com­plete with a cou­ple of chi­canes to slow them down. As the driv­ers come through the frontstretch, they will veer into the in­field — and eight turns later swing back onto the oval.

In ad­di­tion to the tra­di­tional Charlotte oval, gone from the elim­i­na­tion rounds are stops at two other tracks that have been play­off fix­tures — the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway and the 1-mile New Hamp­shire Mo­tor Speedway.

Las Ve­gas Mo­tor Speedway has been added this year. That’s where the play­offs start on Sun­day. It’s a 1.5-mile oval, so that dis­tance is still the most fre­quent in the play­offs, ac­count­ing for four of the 10 events this year — still too many, but down from five. That’s an im­prove­ment.

The Richmond Raceway event will be the sec­ond race of this year’s play­offs. RR pres­i­dent Den­nis Bick­meier likes that spot in the lineup, espe­cially since the fol­low­ing race will be at the Charlotte Ro­val, where four of the 16 driv­ers will be elim­i­nated.

“Richmond takes on ex­tra im­por­tance,” Bick­meier said. “The cham­pi­onship driv­ers are go­ing to be do­ing all they can to give them­selves some play­off in­sur­ance in our race. Charlotte is a new course and no­body knows what’s go­ing to hap­pen. The driv­ers will want to leave Richmond in good shape.”

Bick­meier knows the Ro­val gave some driv­ers fits dur­ing re­cent test­ing. There were crashes and spinouts. The track was hard on tires.

That gave rise to spec­u­la­tion that the race there will end up with lots of crum­pled cars and boil­ing tem­pers.

I don’t think so. Well, maybe a heavy dose of boil­ing tem­pers, but not so many crum­pled cars. Oh, sure, there will be some wrin­kled fend­ers, and a few cars may crash out, but don’t ex­pect a wreck­fest.

These are pro­fes­sional race driv­ers. And un­like the ’60s and ’70s, nearly all of them take road rac­ing se­ri­ously and have de­vel­oped the re­quired skills. There are a few who are the best at it — some who come to mind are Justin All­gaier, Joey Logano,

Denny Ham­lin, Kyle Busch and, most re­cently, Chase El­liott — but every­body in the field will fig­ure things out. It’s what they do.

Nev­er­the­less, Bick­meier is right about Richmond. It will be a chance to com­pen­sate for the un­cer­tainty the Ro­val presents. The play­off driv­ers will all be fo­cused on get­ting ahead of the curve so they can avoid elim­i­na­tion from cham­pi­onship con­tention.

The way the play­offs work, cuts to the cham­pi­onship-el­i­gi­ble lineup take place af­ter the third, sixth and ninth races. Four driv­ers are elim­i­nated each time, cut­ting the field to 12 driv­ers, then eight, then four.

Those four re­main­ing driv­ers will de­cide the cham­pi­onship among them­selves in the 10th play­off race on Nov. 18 at Homestead-Mi­ami Speedway, a 1.5-mile track. Of those four, the driver who has the best fin­ish in that event is the champ.

I’m never go­ing to like hav­ing the ti­tle de­cided by that four-driv­ers, one-race gim­mick. It sub­jects the cham­pi­onship to the luck or mis­for­tune of a sin­gle event.

But this time, NAS­CAR has done what it needed to de­mand more of the 16 driv­ers bat­tling for a spot in the Fi­nal Four.

With the play­off ad­di­tions of Richmond’s one-of-a-kind ¾-mile and Charlotte’s never­done-this-be­fore Ro­val, the nine-race path lead­ing to the fi­nale presents a more stir­ring chal­lenge — the best since NAS­CAR adopted the last-race-de­cides-it for­mat in 2014.

Randy Hall­man, a veteran NAS­CAR writer, is re­tired from the Richmond Times-Dis­patch. His col­umn ap­pears weekly in the NAS­CAR Re­port. Email him at fullthrot­tlerh@gmail.com and fol­low him on Twit­ter @RandyLHall­man.

JOE MA­HONEY/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Richmond Raceway, which had two days of test­ing last month, will hold the sec­ond race in the Cup play­offs.

Matt Kenseth was on hand for test­ing last month at Richmond Raceway, a short track that will add a twist to the Cup Se­ries play­offs.

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