Re-Imagining the NASCAR Chase

It is rare that a Reddit post got me thinking – but as someone who is utterly fascinated by NASCAR’s difficulty settling on a proper championship playoff format, I was genuinely intrigued by this question:

If we were to re-imagine the Chase, what would you be looking for?  Suppose let’s set some ground rules:

  • It should be simple – one of the big issues I have with the Chase is that the points are confusing.  NASCAR uses wins and points in such a way that seeding when the playoffs start can be hard to follow.  Which leads me to the next rule.
  • There is a playoff – saying “run the 36 races” does not work.  The series wants to race in the fall – with the sports competition out there, it makes sense for the series to give its later races some extra oomph.  If you are charging real prices, it is hard to have a year where the field is out of luck.
  • Winning during the season matters – NASCAR wanting wins to be the goal of any race is commendable.
  • Make consistency matter – older point systems did not reward winning enough – but we still like the idea that consistently cranking out Top 10s is inherently valuable.  The tortoise and the hare can get to the same place by very different means.
  • The winner should not be arbitrary – the playoff should be exciting, and it’s okay that a Cinderella comes true now and again.  But the top drivers during the year should generally work out.

Using these rules, this “alternate reality” works like this (assuming we keep 36 races):

  • The points system is based on F1.  However, we stretch the points system to capture the Top 20 finishers.  (F1 only gives points to the Top 10, but their fields are half the size)
    • 60 points for 1st, 45 points for 2nd, 38 points for 3rd
    • 35 points for 4th, 32 for 5th,  29 for 6th down to 20 points for 9th
    • 10th is 18 points, 11th 16 points and so on down to 4 points for 17th
    • 3 points for 18th, 2 points for 19th, 1 point for 20th
    • 6 bonus points for most laps led.
  • The regular season encompasses the first 32 races.  One of the issues with the Chase is that it is too long.  This plan makes the Chase quicker and more impactful.
  • The playoffs are much more inclusive than currently – realistically, every driver out there should have a chance at the Cup.  Instead of watching a 43 car race where only a subset are aiming for the big prize, simplify things.
    • 3 races before the final.  No points reset
    • Points are quadrupled.  So 240 points for a playoff win, and 24 points for most laps.  These should all be the largest money races too.
    • The Top 40 drivers start the playoffs.  This means that pretty much getting a few Top 20 finishes gets you on the board.
    • The field is cut to 30 drivers after 1 races, 25 drivers after the 2nd race and then down to 20 drivers to qualify for the Cup Finals.
    • There is one points reset before Miami.  We use the PGA Tour reseed model.  The Top 5 drivers can win the Cup with a win in Miami.  A winner outside of the Top 20 could win the Cup too, but he/she needs higher ranked drivers to stumble.

Now, this system allows for a guy who had one good result – a road course specialist perhaps – have a chance to win the title.  This is true, but to do that the driver would have to basically sweep the Playoff and then win the final.  It’s just not something which can practically happen – but at least someone can enter the playoff thinking it is possible.

To see how this could have played out, we looked at how the 21st century would have played out with this points system.  Obviously the drivers would have driven a lot differently – especially in the final race – if the points system were different, but still interesting.  (when I refer to “won” the final, I use the highest finish among the 20 qualified drivers …)

Year Leader Entering Playoff Top 5 Entering Final Final Winner (rank entering) Champion
2001 Jeff Gordon (+268) Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett Sterling Marlin (2) Sterling Marlin
2002 Tony Stewart (+77) Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth Kurt Busch (1) Kurt Busch
2003 Ryan Newman (+100) Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon Bobby Labonte (9) Jimmie Johnson
2004 Jimmie Johnson (+12) Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch Greg Biffle (19) Jimmie Johnson
2005 Tony Stewart (+142) Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin Greg Biffle (2) Greg Biffle
2006 Jimmie Johnson (+9) Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon Greg Biffle (14) Jimmie Johnson
2007 Jeff Gordon (+180) Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch Matt Kenseth (3) Matt Kenseth
2008 Carl Edwards (+15) Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle busch, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin Carl Edwards (1) Carl Edwards
2009 Jimmie Johnson (+52) Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart Denny Hamlin (2) Denny Hamlin
2010 Kevin Harvick (+24) Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer Carl Edwards (4) Carl Edwards
2011 Kyle Busch (+26) Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick Tony Stewart (1) Tony Stewart
2012 Jimmie Johnson (+78) Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth Jeff Gordon (12) Jeff Gordon
2013 Jimmie Johnson (+28) Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr Denny Hamlin (18) Matt Kenseth
2014 Jeff Gordon (+4) Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski Kevin Harvick (1) Kevin Harvick
2015 Kevin Harvick (+18) Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski Kyle Busch (6) Kevin Harvick
2016 Kevin Harvick (+73) Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin Jimmie Johnson (6) Jimmie Johnson

Some observations from alternate history

  • It puts a lot of emphasis on winning Miami.  Only 4 times in 15 years does the champion not win.  Now, you would imagine the leaders would run up front more and try harder in this scenario (and with a smaller field there would be more space for that sort of driving).
  • Jimmie Johnson’s excellence is again highlighted – yes he only wins the Cup four times in this imaginary world, but he is in the Top 5 (the “win without help” group) 11 straight years and 12 of the last 14.
  • Now is it fair that in a year like 2001 or 2007 that a guy with an enormous lead lose?  No – but it is something you sign up for with a playoff.  And each of those drivers still had the best odds of any of the Final 20 to win the cup. (about 25%)

Anyway, thought it would be fun for a look.

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