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Analysis: New NASCAR format rewarding regular season excellence

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For the first time in several seasons, we should actually care about the mid-season Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship standings — just not the ones you’re familiar with.

When NASCAR first introduced the elimination Chase for the Championship back in 2014, it pretty much eliminated points racing until the playoffs actually started. Most of the Chase Grid was slotted by victories with only a handful of positions going to non-winners based on championship points.

But the actual playoff was an extreme points race with each three-race round providing too little of a sample size to offset bad luck. It was an often unfair system that penalized unforced errors, such as William Byron’s mechanical issue in the penultimate race of the Camping World Truck Series season in 2016.

Thus, when NASCAR enhanced its championship format for 2017, it came with it provisions that rewarded season-long excellence. That has come in the form of playoff points, which are separate from standard championship points, and are the key to winning NASCAR championships for the foreseeable future.

For example, Kyle Larson is shown as the current Cup Series championship leader and has a 40 point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. Here’s a look at the standings entering the weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

  1. Kyle Larson Ldr.
  2. Martin Truex -40
  3. Chase Elliott -52
  4. Joey Logano -65
  5. Brad Keselowski -71
  6. Kevin Harvick -112
  7. Jamie McMurray -116
  8. Jimmie Johnson -128
  9. Clint Bowyer -163
  10. Kyle Busch -167

But that’s not the real early-season championship battle. For an early look at how the Cup Series championship battle is starting to shake out, you’ve got to study playoff points, which has a much different look than the championship points battle.

First, remember that playoff points are earned by winning one of the first two stages (one playoff point each) or winning races (five playoff points) and those points are added to each playoff drivers championship total after each reset before every round during what used to be called the Chase for the Championship.

As in previous seasons, every playoff driver will have their point totals reset before each round but the playoff points accumulated during the regular season and within each round will be added to the pre-round championship point total.

While it’s a little confusing, just know that the championship leader for the start of each round will be the drivers who have accumulated the most playoff points over the course of the entire season.

Here’s what these standings currently look like:

  1. Brad Keselowski 11
  2. Jimmie Johnson -1
  3. Martin Truex -1
  4. Kyle Larson -4
  5. Joey Logano -5
  6. Ryan Newman -6
  7. Kurt Busch -6
  8. Kevin Harvick -8
  9. Chase Elliott -9
  10. Ryan Blaney -9
  11. Kyle Busch -10
  12. Matt Kenseth -10

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A couple of things stand out.

Despite leading the championship standings, Kyle Larson is currently fourth in the all-important playoff point standings. However, there’s still one more element to be explained: The championship leader at the end of the regular season will be awarded 15 playoff points at the start of each round of the playoffs as long as that driver continues to advance. So in a sense, Larson is also the provisional playoff points leader too.

In other words, fans and drivers lobbied NASCAR to make the regular season have more consequence and the Sanctioning Body responded.

Consider that Keselowski is fifth in the championship standings but is leading the playoff points category by one point. He’s currently 71 points out of the championship lead but was penalized 35 points for a post-race inspection failure following the third race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway.

That penalty is still under appeal and the elimination of that infraction would move him to second in the championship standings and 35 points behind Larson – and closer to the 15 playoff points awarded to the ‘regular season champion’ after the 26th race of the campaign. Those 15 points represent a huge advantage and could be the difference towards advancement during each round of the 2017 playoffs.

So in short, know that the regular season means more than it has in nearly two decades, but it’s the playoff points that matter more than the championship points now. The end of these stages and overall races carry  a sense of urgency that will only ramp up as the playoffs approach.

Just how much these points matter remains to be seen, but it’s worth monitoring as the summer stretch heats up.



By Matt Weaver

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