NASCAR Nashville Takeaways: Win-and-in system, overtime rules don't need fixing

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway …

1. Taking Stock

More than a decade after NASCAR changed its playoff format to an elimination-style competition with a winner-take-all title race, debate remains among fans as to whether it’s the fairest way to decide a champion.

A complaint about the system you don’t hear often? Whether the win-and-in playoff eligibility is a valid way to determine the 16-driver field itself. Even many traditionalists would secretly admit the concept of all 26 regular-season races offering a chance at a playoff berth has been an overall plus and added intrigue to what was formerly an often-dull summer stretch.

Former NASCAR CEO Brian France at least had that part right when he announced the new system in Jan. 2014.

“The drivers will race to whatever format we have, and if that’s a consistency‑based model, that’s how they will try to adapt because that may be the best way to achieve their goal,” he said. “You have to win, and you have to compete at a higher level. You’re probably going to have to take more chances and different strategies are going to unfold. But that’s why we did it.”

Points racing, at least for playoff spots, is largely dead. Sure, there’s an eye on the regular-season title or the top 10 spots in the standings, which offer playoff points. But in terms of being on the bubble, like Joey Logano was entering Sunday’s race at Nashville Superspeedway? The assumption is points won’t secure a postseason berth because the current cut line will continue to move up before the regular season ends, and that’s where France correctly anticipated how strategies would change.

“Can we point our way in (with the standings leading into Nashville)? Sure,” Logano crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “But I feel like you’re going to get another guy or two who wins (to shift the cut line), and then at that point it’s all about winning.”

That’s why Wolfe thought it was worth the gamble for Logano to try and stretch his fuel an incomprehensible 110 laps. If Logano ran out of gas, Wolfe figured, it’s 20 points down the drain. But the upside, with a playoff spot at stake?

“I felt like we needed to roll with it,” he said.

It was a significant risk, backed more by gut than data. The most optimistic projection from Wolfe’s engineers had Logano running out of fuel on the last lap — and indeed, the No. 22’s engine sputtered briefly.

Except taking a chance outweighed being conservative in what Wolfe felt like was shaping up to be a must-win situation for his team, and it happened to pay off perfectly.

“As much as you want to say you can point your way in, that’s great — but personally, we’ve been in the mindset we need to win,” Wolfe said.

And that’s really where France nailed the changed dynamic. Instead of getting out of the car talking about a “good points day,” third-place Tyler Reddick appeared devastated in his interview with NBC Sports. Rookie Zane Smith, 34th in the standings, described himself as being “pissed” over a career-best second-place finish, because he knew how significant a victory would have been.

Yes, earning a playoff berth by winning 3.8 percent of the regular-season races does seem a little odd. Austin Cindric (20th in the standings) and Daniel Suárez (18th) have secured invitations this year at the expense of more consistent drivers who have not won a race.

But at this point, everyone understands the rules and the format. No matter how average or poor of a season a driver is having, it can all be immediately erased and fixed by one great car or strategy call. Any Given Sunday, indeed.

“Being on that cutoff spot, man, it sucks. It’s not fun,” Logano said. “That pressure is real, and you don’t sleep good. You’re constantly thinking about it. It’s nice to be able to get this win to where you can take the next seven weeks to be able to at least sleep a little bit.”

NASCAR’s win-and-in playoff system incentivized Joey Logano’s team to try something drastic Sunday in Nashville. It paid off with a huge victory. (James Gilbert / Getty Images)

2. Fastest Car Tracker

Christopher Bell had the fastest car at Nashville but crashed it after he got buried in traffic due to pit strategy and “lost my cool” while trying to get through the field, as he put it.

But Bell continues to be red-hot. He had the fastest car for the fourth time in the last six races, including for the second straight week, and now has been able to make that claim a series-high five times this season.

Notably, this has helped him pile up playoff points which have been sorely lacking for the No. 20 team in recent seasons. As recently as the Darlington race on May 12, Bell had just seven playoff points and was 15th in the regular-season standings (which gets zero extra playoff points).

After sweeping the stages on Sunday, Bell increased his playoff point total to a series-leading 24 (one more than Kyle Larson) and is sixth in the standings, which would help him collect an additional five playoff points.

Meanwhile, Logano was under no illusions he won with a “mediocre” car on Sunday.

“We weren’t the fastest car by no means,” he said. “But Paul’s strategy worked really, really well throughout most of the race, and we just stayed aggressive the whole day, and it worked out.”

Fastest Car Score: Other Cars 11, Fastest Cars 10.

Fastest Cars by Driver: Bell 5, Kyle Larson 3, Denny Hamlin 3, Tyler Reddick 2, William Byron 2, Joey Logano 2, Michael McDowell 1, Martin Truex Jr. 1, Todd Gilliland 1, Ty Gibbs 1.

3. Q&A

Each week in this space, we’ll pose one question and attempt to answer one from the past.

Q: When will Kyle Busch turn things around?

Logano’s victory essentially eliminated Busch’s chances of making the playoffs on points. Those hopes were already slim anyway, but now Busch is a whopping 104 points behind the cut line (which could get moved up again before the regular season ends).

This year, and this current slump, has been unlike anything Busch has experienced in his Cup Series career. He has finished 27th or worse in five of the last seven races, and his last top-10 finish was May 5 at Kansas Speedway. Meanwhile, he is on pace for career worsts in some major categories, including top-fives (he only has two this season and his career low is eight) and top-10s (currently: five; career low: 13).

But of course, the big stat column is the one which bothers him the most — and also the one which could fix everything. Busch is currently winless and, based on the way Richard Childress Racing is running at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much hope to change that.

And that would be stunning because Busch has never gone through a season without at least one victory. He even won twice in his rookie season as a teenager. Busch’s Fontana win last year moved him past Richard Petty to become the sole record-holder in consecutive winning NASCAR seasons (19), and he’s not ready for that streak to end. Plus, a victory in the next seven races would also vault him into the playoffs.

Except where can Busch win right now? Even if he shook off the bad luck and finished where the car is capable of, the remaining regular-season schedule doesn’t unfold very favorably:

— Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan? Those are big tracks where Busch’s former teams, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, should be the top contenders.

— Chicago? Busch is a capable road racer, but he hasn’t won on a road course since 2015.

— Richmond? Highly unlikely, considering RCR’s short-oval performance of late.

— Darlington? This is more of a driver’s track, but Busch hasn’t led a lap at Darlington in three races with RCR and hasn’t won there since 2008.

— Daytona? This might be his best shot, based on last year’s Talladega win and this year’s near-victory at Atlanta, but a lot of drivers will be saying that. Busch was leading at regulation of last year’s Daytona 500, but he’s 1-for-38 in his Daytona career and, like Darlington, hasn’t won there since 2008.

Anything can happen, especially for one of the greatest drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a stock car. But when his team’s performance isn’t putting him in the ballpark of speed he needs to win, it’s tough to envision Busch standing in victory lane again before time runs out on the regular season.

Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch reacts after an on-track incident ended his hopes in Nashville. Busch has finished 27th or worse in five of the last seven races. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

A: How will Chicago race?

That was our question in last year’s post-Nashville column, and it’s fun to look back now at what the expectations were heading into the inaugural Chicago Street Course race.

Busch had said it would be a “survival race” on the narrow layout with tight corners, and it sure was that way for many drivers — including Busch, who brought out the first caution of last year’s race by getting stuck underneath the tire barrier and then finished fifth anyway.

But who could have foreseen the torrential downpour that left the track soaked and added even more of a survival element to the race? It made for a wildly entertaining event, and the course actually drove much better than drivers anticipated in terms of passing opportunities.

Before the race, former F1 champion Jenson Button said, “It doesn’t matter how quick you are, you also need to have a little bit of luck on your side.” But that actually wasn’t true, because Shane van Gisbergen drove through the field (from 17th to first) after the strategy got flipped, famously winning in his Cup Series debut.

After still drying out from last year’s deluge, we’re hoping not to see rain for Year 2 of Chicago. But with drivers having their first try at a street course behind them and van Gisbergen back in the race to defend his victory, expectations are much higher than entering 2023 in terms of seeing a competitive race worthy of a major spotlight.

4. NASquirks

There seemed to be some mild hand-wringing over the record five overtimes in Sunday’s Nashville race, as more than 41 miles getting added to what was supposed to be a 400-mile race seemed excessive.

But what is the solution? Frankly, the current overtime rules are the best NASCAR has ever had, and there shouldn’t be any temptation to change that. Unfortunately, I’ve lived through some of the ridiculous alternatives and have seen how they can have a negative impact.

You may recall:

— The original overtime in 2004 (“green-white-checkered”) was a positive development because NASCAR was trying to give fans a real finish instead of just running out the laps under caution. But there was a problem: Only one GWC was used, so it sometimes created further controversies like when Jeff Gordon won at Talladega in 2007 before taking the white flag (and had his car pelted with beer cans since he passed Dale Earnhardt Sr. in wins).

— NASCAR later expanded the GWC rule to three attempts instead of one, but that came under fire because it was viewed as creating too much carnage at superspeedways. So officials reversed course and reverted back to one attempt at a GWC finish in 2015.

— That set up the infamous 2015 Talladega race, in which Kevin Harvick appeared to intentionally crash Trevor Bayne in order to hang onto a playoff spot before his dying engine cost him too many points. NASCAR then realized it could not keep a rule that could be so easily manipulated.

— Then came the worst solution of all: The Overtime Line on the backstretch. There were unlimited attempts, but if the drivers made it a half lap (and crossed the line), then the race would be official. Except the problem was NASCAR was inconsistent in officiating when to throw the caution if there was a wreck near the line, so this generated a lot of criticism (possibly from yours truly).

All of those variations laid the groundwork for the current rule, which is essentially unlimited GWC attempts. The leader must take the white flag, which actually makes the “Overtime Line” the start/finish line.

Yes, crazy things can happen at times — like on Sunday. But given even three overtimes is fairly rare and five was unheard of before Sunday, let’s not suddenly think another change is necessary. This is one rule that certainly doesn’t need any adjustment.

5. Five at No. 5

Our mini power rankings after Race No. 21/38 (including exhibitions):

1. Christopher Bell (last week: 1): He had the fastest car again and swept the opening stages. A crash doesn’t change how fast the No. 20 team has been recently.

2. Denny Hamlin (last week: 5): The whole narrative would have been different had Austin Cindric not spun in the final laps, as Hamlin would have won a series-high fourth race and reestablished the No. 11 team as a top title contender heading into the heart of the summer stretch.

3. Kyle Larson (last week: 2): Another driver who was in position to win the race had circumstances unfolded just a little differently with the excessive overtimes. There’s still no reason to discount the No. 5 team as a serious championship threat.

4. Ryan Blaney (last week: 3): The strategy got messed up, but Blaney still finished sixth thanks to all of the overtime attempts. Blaney has scored the most points of any driver over the last four races.

5. Tyler Reddick (last week: not ranked): Reddick could have won New Hampshire had NASCAR not been so determined to dry the track, then was top three in both stages at Nashville and probably should have beaten Logano for the victory. Overall, Reddick has five top-10 finishes in the last six races and should be a contender on the Chicago Street Course.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott.



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(Top photo of Joey Logano celebrating Sunday’s win: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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