With only two races remaining before the cutoff for the NASCAR Playoffs on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series takes place the time has come for drivers and teams to nail down the yet unclaimed positions in order to make the dash for the title that will begin in Las Vegas and ultimately end in Miami. The current system calls for sixteen drivers to be included in the playoffs with eliminations occurring after the third, sixth and ninth races leading up to the final event in which four drivers will be eligible to claim the 2019 championship.
As it stands now, four drivers are essentially vying for two remaining places providing that someone from even further back in the standings doesn’t pull off an upset victory to gain entry ahead of those four. Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez hold a slight advantage over Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson with races in Darlington and Indianapolis still to be contested before the cutoff.
But it seems to this writer that an even bigger question than who will claim those remaining spots is whether or not there are too many drivers and teams given entry into the playoffs in the first place. Have any of those four racers really done enough to warrant a chance to win a championship?
A total of 16 competitors make the NASCAR Playoffs. Are there really 16 drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series worthy of having even a slim chance to claim the trophy at the end of the season?
A look at the statistics of those involved in the battle for those two spots might suggest otherwise.
Newman currently holds a 14 point advantage ahead of the cut line. The No. 6 Ford has not exactly put together an awe-inspiring campaign up to this point. As a matter of fact, this Roush Fenway Racing effort has only scored one top-5 finish in 24 races. On two different occasions Newman has posted three consecutive top-10 runs but he also has amassed a total of five results outside the top-20 over the course of the season.
Suarez is two points to the good in terms of being ahead of the cut line. Only during one stretch of the schedule has the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford compiled three consecutive top-10 efforts on their way totals of three top-5 and eight top-10 finishes. And like Newman, he has ended his day outside the top-20 on five separate outings in 2019.
Bowyer has the most top-5 and top-10 finishes among this group with five and ten respectively but inconsistency has been his downfall as he has posted seven results outside the top-20. The No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford did, however, have a stretch of four consecutive top-10s at one point in the season. All of that has left him two points behind his SHR teammate for the sixteenth and final playoff spot.
Johnson has hardly demonstrated the prowess of a seven-time champion in 2019. While the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet does have three top-5 efforts, there have also been six runs to have ended outside the top-20. He must win a race or make up 26 points in order to qualify for the playoffs.
NASCAR allows 44% of its chartered teams to make the playoffs. In comparison, the NFL doles out post-season spots to 38% of its teams while Major League Baseball only gives 33% of its organizations a chance to make the World Series.
Based on the stats mentioned above, it seems as if there is a great deal of mediocrity being allowed to compete for a highly coveted trophy. And while one argument might be that those at the tail of the playoff field will likely be eliminated early on anyway, the question of whether or not they should even be included in the group ought to be asked.
To think that a driver who has finished in the top-5 only one time in 24 races is actually in the driver’s seat to claim a playoff spot seems illogical. And while only one of those four drivers mentioned above(Johnson) has been competitive enough to win a stage in 2019, they are all still being counted as contenders.
Yes, the example of Tony Stewart winning five of the final ten races in 2011 to grab the championship after barely making what was then called the ‘Chase for the Sprint Cup’ field could serve to make a case for any of these drivers mentioned in this piece having a chance at glory. But at that time, there were only twelve drivers to make the post-season compared to today’s sixteen.
In this writer’s view, sixteen teams making the NASCAR Playoffs out of only 36 total charters is simply too many. It cheapens the whole deal for those with so few top finishes to be included with the drivers who have run up front, posted consistently solid results, and won races over the course of the entire campaign. Being included in the mix for a title should require more accomplishment than simply beating out barely over half of the field.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook