Changes improved flawed Cup playoffs
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RandyLHallman.
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.