Hallman: Making sense of nonsense of Cup playoff format

August 30, 2018

NASCAR is getting down to it.

Having taken its final break of the 2018 campaign, the France Family’s Traveling Speed Show has two more events in the 26-race regular season, then on to the 10-race playoffs.

Some of us still regard 26 races as a truer test of team and driver, as evidenced by the fact that the two legitimate contenders for the regular-season title are six-time winner Kyle Busch and seven-time winner Kevin Harvick.

Other than deciding who gets the not-too-impressive regular-season trophy, the next two races will sort out the final two spots on the 16-driver playoff roster. If drivers well back in the point standings defy the odds and win one or both of those races, they could bump from the playoffs the final two drivers who stand to advance but have yet to win.

At the moment, the two vulnerable drivers are seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, mired in the longest losing streak in his otherwise stellar career, and Johnson’s teammate in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, Alex Bowman.

But don’t wager on surprise winners. The two tracks hosting those races — South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway and Indiana’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway — aren’t all that susceptible to out-of-nowhere drivers finding their way to victory lane.

Of more interest, perhaps, will be the success, or lack thereof, of the way those two races are promoted and attended.

Darlington on Sunday night again will test the power of nostalgia.

As has been the case since 2015, the event showcases current cars sporting “throwback” paint schemes — designs reminiscent of an earlier era.

The promotion, successful so far, is becoming a tradition of its own.

Indy, on the other hand, is a track in search of a marketing hook for its annual stock-car race.

The speedway can seat 235,000 or so in its grandstands. Stuff the infield and you can swell that crowd to 400,000. When Indy first hosted NASCAR in 1994, the crowd was estimated at 250,000, the all-time single-race record for a stock-car event.

Attendance has withered, alarmingly in recent years. Maybe the look is worse than the reality. After all, a crowd of 50,000 leaves acres of empty seats glimpsed on the occasional errant aerial TV shot. NASCAR no longer releases crowd counts at any of its tracks, but the past couple of races at Indy have drawn what you might call a sprinkling of fans.

Some who follow NASCAR have begun to ask whether NASCAR belongs at Indy at all.

So this year, NASCAR moved the Brickyard 400, making it the regular-season finale — the last chance to make the playoffs. Oh, the drama!

Can Indy promote that? The salient question for that race will be not who’s going to win, but who’s going to come. Can the track draw a crowd that will look better than the turnout for a screening of an art film?

Once we see the answer to that question, we can get on with the playoffs, with its systematic elimination of drivers until only four remain eligible for the championship in the finale.

There are things I like about this year’s playoffs. More about that in a future column. For now, I’ll rant once more about what I don’t like about NASCAR’s system.

The freakiest possibility is that Johnson could win his eighth title, breaking his seven-championship tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Yes, NASCAR’s playoff makes that possible. Johnson could cap the worst season of his career hoisting the trophy that would make the case for anointing him the greatest of all time.

It’s probably not going to happen, but it could. A little luck in the elimination rounds and a better race than three other drivers in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway could elevate Johnson to the title.

If you’ve been a fan for a while, you might remember Tony Stewart’s 2011 season. He went into the playoffs — which boasted 12 drivers back then — with zero wins and just three top-five finishes.

At that point, Stewart said he didn’t deserve to make the playoffs and wouldn’t be a factor in the championship.

Then he went out and won five of the 10 playoff events. Not only was he a factor, he won the championship and deserved it.

Johnson is staring at a similar circumstance. He has not won. He has not contended. He has just two top-five finishes so far in 2018. He has led only 29 laps all year — Stewart had led 340 after 24 races in 2011.

Maybe Johnson could turn his season around. Maybe he and crew chief Chad Knaus could unlock the secrets of the Camaro that Chevrolet teams are campaigning this year.

If they could win five of the final 10 races (or final 12, including the end of the regular season), Johnson and Knaus could call an eighth title legitimate.

But just now, with the end of the regular season looming, Johnson could paraphrase what Stewart said in 2011. Johnson’s team hardly belongs in the playoffs and shouldn’t be a factor in the championship.

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