9 Wins. 20 Top 5’s. A career high 7.3 average finish. This should have been the season that Kevin Harvick won his second NASCAR Cup Series Championship. But a stroke of bad luck leading to a pair of subpar finishes ousted him from NASCAR’s playoffs without a chance to even race for the title.
Harvick cruised to the regular season championship, and would have clinched the title last week at Texas if NASCAR’s elimination playoff system wasn’t in place. It’s not 2003, though, and the intensity and drama filled format NASCAR has created to appease their current and perspective fanbase didn’t allow Harvick to coast to a championship, as many would have liked.
The entire idea of these playoffs were for drivers to “put up or shut up” – 10 races where even the smallest blunder (say, hitting the turn 2 wall at Texas, or suffering a flat tire at Martinsville) can end your chances at a title. Just ask Kurt Busch, who’s blown motor at Kansas ended his underdog run at a second championship. Or defending champion Kyle Busch, who didn’t even make it to the Round of 8 after a couple of unlucky breaks in the second round. Or rising star Ryan Blaney, who was handed a point penalty in the opening race at Darlington and couldn’t recover enough to even make it out of the Round of 16.
The playoffs are not forgiving. The playoffs don’t care about what how many wins you had in the regular season. The playoffs require the best stock car drivers in the world to perform at their absolute best for a two-and-a-half month stretch running from late summer all the way to Thanksgiving.
Kevin Harvick was not at his best in the Round of 8. He, and his #4 Stewart-Haas Racing team made mistakes that would be insurmountable for most teams to recover from in any given playoff round. Honestly, the fact that they only missed the Championship round by one point is astonishing. From the poor 16th place run at Texas, to the bad luck compounded by a swing and a miss on the car setup at Martinsville, Harvick flushed away what would have been normally been an afternoon stroll to NASCAR’s championship round at Phoenix, which just so happens to be his best track.
This goes beyond flat tires, wall scrapes and point standings, though. Harvick’s failure to win the championship in the current playoff system is a result of NASCAR’s attempt to reach a broader, younger fanbase, by mimicking other major professional sports.
The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are solidified as the premier sports league in the country, all competing in a regular season, followed by an elimination tournament concluding with a championship final. The NFL has the Super Bowl, hockey has the Stanley Cup, baseball plays the World Series, while basketball has the NBA Finals. Each one of those events draw massive television ratings, widespread engagement on social media, and dramatic moments that help develop and further the history of each respective sport. Playoffs and championship finals, from a business standpoint, generate millions of dollars in revenue. In a day and age where NASCAR’s leadership has been desperately searching for ways to broaden their fanbase, the implementation of the NASCAR Playoffs and Championship Four were absolutely necessary.
Sure, NASCAR’s playoffs aren’t the status-quo playoffs that you’re used to. Drivers that are eliminated still get to race the next week, and there’s four drivers in the championship round rather than the usual two teams most sports fans are used to. But those are minor quirks that don’t necessarily take away from the familiarity that the average sports fan can find when watching a late-season NASCAR event.
On top of that, NASCAR is now able to market the four drivers racing for the championship, increasing brand identity and name recognition for Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, while also spurring perspective fan interest by promoting a winner-take-all style fight to the final checkered flag.
In the long run, this playoff system, while unlike anything else in racing, is exactly what the doctor ordered for the future of NASCAR. Drama? Check. Tempers? Check. Storylines exactly like this one? You betcha.
NASCAR has hit a home run with the playoffs, and more you talk about it, the more successful they’ll be.
Photo Credit: Motorsport.com
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