Consistency is officially dead in NASCAR racing. Dead. Done. Irrelevant.
For the first time since NASCAR introduced the current playoff format and started talking about eliminations and wanting wins to matter more, it is finally in the midst of a Cup Series season when it’s all about winning and wins trump everything else. Winning is better than point racing. Winning will get you into the postseason.
It’s what the series was aiming for when the playoffs were introduced nine years ago, but it’s legitimately happening now. Kevin Harvick is the 15th different winner in 23 races, and there is one spot on the playoff grid left.
As a reminder, here is some of what former NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said in January 2014 when the format was introduced, and take note of the emphasis added: “We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter even more, diminishes points racing, puts a premium on winning races and concluded with a best-of-the-best, first to the finish line showdown race – all of which is exactly what the fans want.”
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Where in years past it was clear there was point racing among drivers from, say, 13th on back to claim a spot on the playoff grid, there is none of that going on now. The only time points matter now are to the drivers watching the competition around them to avoid being the lowest in the standings and potentially kicked off the playoff grid if there are 16 or more winners.
There is now a genuine chance that could happen with three races to go in the regular season. With Harvick’s win, this is the first time the Cup Series has delivered 15 different winners in a season, meaning it’s the closest the series has come to potential chaos if there are more winners than playoff spots available.
With Harvick off the board, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the two biggest contenders still searching for a win. Blaney is second in the overall championship standings and sitting on the playoff bubble. Truex is fourth in the overall standings and sitting below the playoff cutline and would not contend for a championship if the playoffs started this weekend.
Blaney and Truex. Let it sink in that two drivers inside the top five in the championship standings are fighting for their postseason lives. One, if not both, could be left on the outside looking in, depending on how the next three weeks play out.
These two are balancing the fight for points and a win. Blaney leads Truex by 19 points, which is certainly enough to overcome in a race. All others behind Truex are in must-win mode.
“I have no idea,” Blaney said about whether he’s points racing or going for a win. “We’ll see. We’ll race the 19, obviously, for points and try to win the race. We’ll try to do both.”
In a video posted by NBC Sports, Truex said, “We’ll just see. We’ll go fight hard like we always do. We’ve got a great team; we’ve had a decent year. The only thing missing is that win, and that’s obviously what matters now. We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”
There are plenty of others looking for their own win to get into the playoff scenario – Erik Jones (14th in points), Aric Almirola (18th in points) and Bubba Wallace (19th in points), just to name a few.
It’s precisely what NASCAR was looking for. Winning matters. Only winning matters.
Of course, this would happen, right? The first year of a new car brings new opportunities, a change in parity, and the chance to see something the format has never seen before.
Could Blaney have imagined 15 different winners at this point in the season?
“I can now,” he said.
NASCAR did from the beginning. It’s just taken a few years to get here.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASCAR Cup: Winning all that matters; points racing is dead in 2022