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WOODY: In NASCAR’s playoffs, winning, not finishing second, third or fifth, should get a driver into the championship field

September 23, 2018

In 2015, Joey Logano won all three races in the second round of the NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When the field was set for the championship race at Homestead, Logano was not among the four drivers eligible to compete for the title.

In 2014, Brad Keselowski won two races in the playoffs but was not among the four finalists at Homestead. But Ryan Newman, who had not won a race the entire year, was.

Winning is supposed to be the point of NASCAR, not running fifth consistently. Yet in the most important and dramatic part of the season, winning isn’t necessarily secondary, but driving to avoid being one of the four cars cut in each of the three rounds can be essential to success.

So, here’s an idea.

If a driver in the 16-car Monster Energy Cup playoffs wins a race, he automatically qualifies for the championship field at Homestead, the 36th and final race of the year.

Good idea or great idea?

Has this proposal got legs, or in this case tires, or what?

“I don’t know,” Keselowski said.

Wait. What?

Keselowski is not only one of the 16 playoff drivers, he also won the first race in the playoffs last week in Las Vegas.

Under this brilliant new system, he would be in the championship field at Homestead.

“There’s so many rules as it is,” Keselowski said. “I hate adding more. I’d like to get rid of half of them. Every time somebody asks about making a rule change, I cringe.”

Well, we don’t want that.

“I think the way it is is OK,” former Chesterfield resident Denny Hamlin said. “You have the drama of four guys being eliminated every three weeks. That’s good for TV. There’s a sense of urgency when you know you’re in the bottom four, and you have to dig your way out before the next cutoff race.”

Hamlin is feeling that sense of urgency now. He sits in 16th place heading into the Federated Auto Parts 400 Saturday night at Richmond Raceway. It is the second race in the first round of three races. Hamlin needs to do well.

The playoffs have undergone a number of changes since their inception. One more isn’t going to end NASCAR as we know it (low TV ratings and dwindling attendance will do that).

When Logano swept the second round of the playoffs in 2015, that was a championship-worthy effort. He at least deserved a chance to compete for the title in the final race. Instead, he was taken out deliberately by Matt Kenseth in in the third race of Round 3, at Martinsville, all but scuttling Logano’s chances of making the final four.

Kenseth was settling a score from a previous race where he had issues with Logano’s driving.

Score-settling is in the DNA of NASCAR, but there’s a time and place for it. The playoffs are not the place. Kenseth was suspended for two races, but that didn’t do Logano any good.

Perhaps the young drivers, the future of the sport, think differently and see the advantages of a payoff for a victory in the playoffs.

“I don’t think I’d necessarily be in favor of that rule,” said Erik Jones, 22, and perhaps the strongest of the up-and-comers this season. “I think there probably would be too many different drivers ... in the final race.”

Not necessarily.

In 2014, the four-car field would have expanded to six, eight in 2015, six in 2016 and five in 2017.

“I think the way we have it now with the elimination style is what makes the playoffs intense, the knockout rounds, making things happen,” Jones said. “It’s the same as other sports, you can be the best team in football and lose a game in the second round, and be out and not have a shot to go to the Super Bowl.”

Yes, but a team can’t get to the Super Bowl without winning throughout the playoffs.

“I think there’s always an idea to change and enhance,” Keselowski said. “Sometimes I think we just need to pick some things and stick with them, whether they work perfect or not. Just go. There’s probably no perfect system that’s going to make everyone happy. That scenario [the fate Keselowski and Logano experienced in 2014 and ’15] doesn’t make people happy, but that’s just the way it is sometimes.”

Keselowski gives thoughtful answers. But we’re not talking about an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. We’re talking racin’, which is a living, breathing organism where change is constant.

So, c’mon guys, I’m throwing you a lifeline. Grab it. Cherish it. Let it pull you to the starting line at Homestead.

No thanks necessary. Just doing my job.

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