Just in case you haven’t been following along, the NCAA Basketball Tournament is set to begin this week as teams will battle their way toward a potential Final Four appearance and a national championship. For many sports fans this time of the year is a particular favorite as upsets, near misses, and high drama will be part of the show for the next few weekends.
The tournament begins with a pair of “play-in” games between four teams who are simply hoping to work their way into the field of 64 title contenders.
In some ways, the NASCAR Cup Series season plays out a bit like the basketball tournament. Drivers and teams use the first 26 races of the season as a sort of “play-in” type situation as they look to make their way into the field of 16 who will battle for the championship. Just like the basketball tournament, the end goal is to be on of the remaining four still alive going into the final weekend of the season with a chance at achieving the ultimate glory within the sport.
With the NASCAR format being set up the way it is, every race could be called a play-in. In the same way college basketball uses its conference tournaments to help set the field for its tournaments, NASCAR uses its individual races in the same sort of way. Since one win essentially guarantees that a driver and his team will be included among those 16 hopefuls, even teams who have had poor seasons can earn that puncher’s chance by getting hot at the right time and pulling off a surprise victory just as a basketball team who hasn’t been very good throughout the regular season might do in their conference tournament.
Look at the past couple of seasons in NASCAR to see the similarities.
In 2020, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer would not have made it to the NASCAR Playoffs had he relied solely on his position in the standings. However, he pulled off a surprising late-race pass on a restart at the Kentucky Speedway to get a win and secure his spot. While the No. 41 Ford didn’t go very far once in the Playoffs, they did gain the opportunity because of the tournament-like setup.
Both Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola used the ‘win-to-get-in’ format to their advantage in 2021 to make the NASCAR Playoffs. Like Custer in the previous season, neither of these two would have been eligible for the Playoffs based on their point totals but McDowell’s Daytona 500 triumph and Almirola’s victory in New Hampshire gained them entry. While their time as championship contenders did not last long, they at least had the opportunity.
One major difference in the two formats is, of course, that in the NCAA Tournament, each team only plays against one other team at a time. In racing, everyone is up against everyone else, whether locked into the Playoffs or not. While that would be impossible in most other sports, no NASCAR competitors are eliminated from the individual races just because they no longer have a chance at earning a title.
But in the end, every team in both sports is trying to make it into that Final Four to have their shot at championship glory.
This is not to say that one format is the same as the other. But, the point is that in one way or another, each offers even the lowest in the standings at least the hope of a miracle that might end with the collection of a trophy at the end of the season. But perhaps the key difference is that NASCAR’s tournament isn’t limited to just one month of the year.
Please consider also reading:
Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook