It's been almost a week since seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson wheel-hopped going into the final two turns of the last lap at the inaugural Roval race at Charlotte, causing Johnson a spot in the next round of the playoffs. With so much drama to comprehend, it's taken most of the NASCAR community days to digest everything that happened.
A popular take on the incident is hindsight. Johnson should have accepted second-place and move on to the round of 12. Yes, hindsight says this is the right move for Johnson. The 17-year veteran is seeking a record-breaking eighth championship. He is 43 years old and has limited seasons left to capture what would be his most historic title. And this obviously cost him an opportunity.
But let's take a deeper look at this idea.
Johnson is currently on a 52-race winless streak; the longest of his career. The only thing going through the mind of Johnson was getting the win. It's what he is paid to do. It's what has made him the seven-time champion. Settling for second isn't hard-wired into his brain. Drivers always have the mindset of getting the highest position possible. If you're a Saturday night racer, each position means more money. If you're a NASCAR driver, each position means more points. And here, is where the problem occurs.
The playoff system NASCAR has in place encourages drivers being comfortable with their position. A broadcast of a race will remind you on consistent basis that 'every point matters.' However, that's far from the truth. Look at race-winner Ryan Blaney. He was in third position on the last lap, comfortably going to make it to the next round of the playoffs. There was no incentive to push hard to catch the two leaders.
Under the original playoff system (a 10-race chase) the driver who collected the most points during that ten-race stretch would be the champion. It was a perfect solution for two problems NASCAR was facing. One, it would prevent runaway champions which often had title-clinching moments weeks before the final race. Two, it created a playoff just like other pro sports.
But NASCAR did NASCAR things. They kept changing the format, year after year, trying to create drama. Finally, NASCAR came up with the Kardashian of playoff formats. A system wiping away all points for the final four drivers in a one-race winner take all—creating the forced drama the sport was looking to add.
Leading to the finale was three rounds of playoffs which sees four drivers eliminated with the lowest point totals for the round. This leads to scenarios like we saw this past Sunday. A driver like Johnson, who makes it to the next round of the playoffs by settling for second. But gets penalized by going for the win. The real way to make every point matter, is by getting rid of eliminations. Cumulative point totals naturally make every point matter. And falling far back in points naturally eliminates a driver from championship contention. So NASCAR, listen to your fans, no gimmicks, no eliminations, no forced drama. Go back to your original playoff format with some minor adjustments.
For the sake of winning.