September 30, 2022

With 13 different winners so far this year in the NASCAR Cup Series, the playoff format could force top drivers to miss the playoffs.

Tyler Reddick became the 13th different winner of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season when he took the checkered flag in last Sunday’s race at Road America. He also became the fifth driver to record a first victory this year.

Even with eight races remaining before the playoffs, the long list of regular-season winners is already tied for the most the series has seen since implementing a knockout playoff format in 2014, which which brings the format closer to having a noticeable flaw exposed.

In the Cup Series playoff standings, full-time drivers with a win are placed ahead of non-winners, as long as they are in the top 30 of the regular season points standings.

If there are fewer than 16 winners, the remaining spots are awarded to the non-winners in order of regular season points. Only the regular season champion is guaranteed a playoff berth, if he doesn’t win.

NASCAR has never been in a position where a race winner hasn’t made the playoffs in this format. In fact, NASCAR has never been in a position where the playoff field was made up entirely of race winners either.

Since Reddick became the 13th different winner, there are still three places available for drivers without a win. Those spots are currently held by Ryan Blaney (second in points), Martin Truex Jr. (seventh) and Christopher Bell (eighth).

While there are still three spots available on points, the upcoming schedule includes several races on “equalizing” tracks, increasing the potential for more drivers to find their way to victory.

With 13 different winners in the first 18 races of the season, there is good reason to believe parity will continue in the final eight events before the playoffs.

Next Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will feature superspeedway-style pack racing, thanks to off-season repaving of the track and the package NASCAR will be using for the event. This style of racing was on display earlier this year when William Byron won at the track on Sunday March 20.

With Daytona International Speedway set to host the regular season finale, there are essentially two superspeedway races left to come. There are also two road races, one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and another at Watkins Glen International, plus a short track race at Richmond Raceway.

These tracks are traditionally called “equalizers”, because individual speed means less, and driver skill means more. This would seem to open the door to new winners.

Michael McDowell sits 21st in the points standings, but he has the third-best average in the last five races (10.0), leading 34 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and finishing in the top eight in three races over the course of this period. .

He has a reputation as a good road racer and owns an Xfinity Series win at Road America. Plus, his only career Cup Series win came last year at the Daytona 500, so McDowell could earn his spot.

Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace are also all former superspeedway winners, and all have shown speed at times this year. Chris Buescher has twice finished in the top six in the last three races. Every driver is still looking for the number one victory of 2022.

As the NASCAR Cup Series inches closer to 16 winners, the possibility of top drivers missing the playoffs is getting closer to reality.

The highest-ranked winless driver currently is Blaney, who sits second in the points standings, 33 points behind Chase Elliott.

Blaney is having a consistent season, averaging 12.2 (third best in the series). He is tied for the most stage wins (five) and has led at least one lap in all but three events.

He’s posting some of the best results and deserves a playoff berth, but he could end up missing the playoffs if he’s unable to win a race or score enough points to claim the regular-season championship.

Truex, Bell and Kevin Harvick are other notable names whose playoff hopes could be in jeopardy. All three should certainly have multiple chances to reach victory lane heading into the playoffs, but they could be in trouble if they don’t.

While one of the benefits of the playoff format is the emphasis on winning, it also discredits consistency per se, so a change to the format should be considered.

Imagine if three drivers in the top eight of the regular season points standings didn’t qualify for the playoffs. They were among the eight most consistent drivers all season, but they would lose their chance to win a championship to drivers who had worse seasons but found their way to victory.

Denny Hamlin only has four top-10 finishes, but half of those are wins. Chase Briscoe also only has four top-10 finishes, with an early victory.

Hamlin, Briscoe and Austin Cindric combine for just two top five finishes more than Blaney, and they each sit at least 12 spots behind Blaney in the points standings, but they could make the playoffs on him.

The fairness debate has been around since the first version of the playoffs was introduced in 2004. Ultimately, the playoffs create more excitement and bring NASCAR in line with other major sports, so this isn’t Ain’t the end of the world if the driver with the best overall season doesn’t win the championship.

The problem with this default is that it is simply about having the opportunity to compete for a championship. Surely there should be a better balance between a focus on wins and consistency to be in contention for the title with 10 races to go.

A possible solution could be that any driver in the top five by points is guaranteed a place, even if they don’t win. This setting would always award more than two-thirds of the places to winners while ensuring that the most consistent finishers are not punished if they fail to win a trophy.

While only Blaney would be in a position to benefit from such a change at this time, Truex and Bell would also have automatic playoff berths at their fingertips.

Whatever the solution, NASCAR should seriously consider updating the playoff format to avoid what has become a growing possibility this season: top-ranked drivers missing the playoffs.