NASCAR currently decides on a champion at its top level through a process that’s somehow both complicated and arbitrary. The result is more about entertainment than staying true to what motorsports is, which is why, as “commissioner” of NASCAR for a day, I’ll try to make it all a little better. Lend me all the luck you can spare.
It used to be simple. NASCAR used to be about collecting points for finishes, leading laps, and other accomplishments over a season, and then the driver with the most points when everything was over won. That’s not how things are now.
Currently, in the top-level Cup Series, there’s a 26-race regular season and 10-race playoff. A regular-season win almost ensures a driver a playoff spot, although there are some rules that ensure somebody doesn’t win the Daytona 500 and then just not compete again until the postseason. There are also “playoff points” that drivers can get during the year, which make it easier to get through the elimination playoff rounds.
Points are reset for the playoffs, and 16 drivers face off there across four rounds, with the first three each lasting three races and the final round consisting of just one race. Four drivers are eliminated after each round, leaving only four going for the title in that final race. A win in each round advances a driver automatically to the next, when points are reset again.
See? Even the basics are complicated.
Anyway, the title is decided by the highest finisher of the four remaining playoff drivers in the final race of the year—whether they win or finish 32rd, because all four wrecked or something. Nothing in that race matters but finishing order, and points aren’t a factor in the title.
All this complication has been added to the process in an attempt to make NASCAR more like ball sports, introducing identifiable sports things like “overtime,” playoffs, and “stages,” which are meant to break up races like quarters and periods do in whatever ball sports you all watch. NASCAR has even said in the past that it needs “game-seven moments” for the title, hence the whole “one race wins it all” deal.
The problem, here, is that motorsports aren’t like most ball sports. Playoffs and single-race title deciders don’t feel legitimate because, rather than playing on a regulation field—the same one each time—NASCAR visits race tracks of all lengths, sizes, and styles of racing. Sure, it’s an exciting format, but deciding the champion by who finishes the best at some random, NASCAR-chosen track at the end of the year doesn’t tell the audience who was the best driver all year. It just tells them who was the best at that track on that day.
As a fan, I find it impossible to watch all that and come out thinking, “Yeah, that driver wholly and totally deserved the title,” because I’m left to wonder about how the points would have ended up in a less convoluted system. But as commissioner, I only get to make one rule change rather than overhauling the whole system. Luckily there are still some good changes to make, even staying within the parameters.
One way to make the championship feel more legitimate is to let the top seven drivers in regular-season points pick the final seven tracks of the season, in reverse order from the end—an idea my husband and I brainstormed a few weeks back. Logistics aside, it preserves NASCAR’s goofy “guaranteed game seven” thing, while also making the regular season matter and taking the power away from NASCAR to decide where the final race will be held.
The most consistent driver in the regular season then gets to pick the track they want for the finale. If they make it to the end, which they probably will, they’ll have a huge advantage. If they get eliminated, oh well. This still makes the playoffs more of a spectacle, which is useful because NASCAR really does have a problem with going to the same tracks at the same times of the year, almost every year.
It might not be the perfect rule change, or make the championship as legitimate as it once felt. But it does create a more decent balance between legitimacy and pure spectacle. Plus, we’re working with a highly imperfect system here—and sometimes, all you can do is try to make things like that a little better.