April 14, 2024

Fans of stock car racing likely spent Sunday like they normally would: watching NASCAR. It was a 400-mile race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in southern Florida. During it, fans stood up, they sat down. They yelled, they went silent. They pondered some moves and praised others. They experienced every emotion but boredom.

These days, it’s like that every weekend.

There are few dull moments in modern NASCAR, because the sport is designed to avoid them. Former NASCAR CEO Brian France spent years talking about how he wanted his sport to have more “Game 7” moments, and in 2014, NASCAR overhauled its top-level Cup Series to feature a playoff format meant to create those moments.

With the playoffs, 16 drivers qualify for a 10-race postseason. (The rest of the drivers are still on track, just no longer racing for the title.) There are three “rounds” of three races, and after each round, four drivers get eliminated. The points then reset for the new round, and everyone starts from scratch. If you scrape by in one round, you get new life in the next. If you have a bad round and end up on the outside, you’re done. If you win a race in any round, you automatically advance to the next. The playoffs culminate in a single race for the championship, where points no longer matter and the highest finisher that day wins the title.

At first, it was a hugely unpopular idea. The system was complicated for newcomers, the rules felt like manufactured drama and the champion felt like the best driver from one day, not the whole season. Game 7 buzzer-beaters are special because they aren’t guaranteed, not because the rules forced them.

It’s been almost 10 years since the playoffs began, though, and fans watching Sunday’s race were surely in awe.

Homestead is the second of three races in the Round of 8, meaning we’ve eliminated all but eight drivers in championship contention. After the next race at Martinsville Speedway, a half-mile short track in Virginia, four of those drivers will be eliminated. The others will go into the Championship Four finale with one shot at the title.

Coming into Homestead, 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson had already advanced to the Championship 4 with a win. William Byron, Denny Hamlin, and 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. were above the “cut line” that marks who’s tentatively in place to make the next round, while Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher were below it.

Homestead is a track known for ripping the fence. The fastest drivers are often inches off the outside wall, balancing the desire for speed with the knowledge that if they’re a hair out of line, they risk everything. The race is 267 laps of hoping your ambition doesn’t ruin you.

Buescher struggled all day, tanking himself in the points. Truex, who was first in points at the end of the regular season, parked his car with a mechanical issue late in the race. Hamlin’s car slammed into the wall with about 30 laps to go, right after he passed Blaney for third. Hamlin said something broke with the steering, and Blaney, who didn’t like how Hamlin raced him before the wreck, called him a “hack.”

Hamlin and Truex, who entered Homestead above the cut line, now go to Martinsville below it.

Larson dove in for a pit stop late in the race, trying and failing to slow down to pit-road speed. He hit Blaney, who was also making a stop, then careened into the sand barrels protecting drivers from a nasty collision with the wall at the entry to pit lane. Larson went to the garage, done for the day, but already locked into the championship race. Blaney recovered for a second-place finish, battling Byron, Reddick and Bell for the win.

Bell wasn’t a factor for most of the day. His car was bad, and he almost went down a lap to the leader, but his team brought his Toyota Camry to life with adjustments, and a late-race caution bunched up the field. He drove through everyone to take the lead with 15 laps to go, holding off his playoff rivals to win and advance to the Championship 4.

His win leaves six drivers fighting for the final two spots.

NASCAR has always been a dramatic sport with close competition. At Homestead, fans were treated to some drivers crawling out of their points deficits and others blowing their leads, all while knowing none of it was final until the checkered flag.

For years, fans could be forgiven for thinking that the playoffs — although entertaining — cheapened the value of the championship. It’s not a view held by many drivers, though.

“We’re all given the same set of rules,” one told ESPN, “whoever navigates them the best wins.”

That driver is right. There are no longer NASCAR seasons where a driver dominates, gets a huge points lead and wins the championship several races to go. Sometimes the driver who dominates doesn’t win, and sometimes they don’t even make it to the title race, but everyone gets the same set of rules and only one wins.

The playoffs don’t manufacture the drama. They just give it a spotlight, and we’re all better off for it.


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