NASCAR’s Regular Season Finale Was the Good Kind of Bad

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NASCAR Regular Season Finale Was Good Kind of BadJames Gilbert - Getty Images

The NASCAR Cup Series playoff format is a ridiculous gimmick designed to manufacture drama at every point of the 36-race season. It's something no racing championship anywhere else in the world does, and arguably, it's antithetical to the spirit of competition. Sometimes, however, it produces very fun, high-stakes racing.

Saturday night's regular-season finale at Daytona was a perfect example. NASCAR's playoff format has sixteen spots. Full-time drivers get a spot for winning a race, with whatever number of remaining spots left going to non-race-winners with the highest points total. On Saturday night at Daytona, there was one spot left. This year, Bubba Wallace headed into the final night of the 26-race qualifying period with a comfortable lead in the points among non race winners. Effectively, the battle was between Wallace and the field: If any other full-time driver not yet in the playoffs won, they would get the last playoff spot. If either Wallace or a driver already locked into the playoffs won, Wallace was in. Since this was a Daytona pack race, just about everyone had a very real shot to win so long as they could stay on track until the dash to the line at the end of the night.

Other than a narrow mathematical chance for Ty Gibbs to pass Wallace on points if stages broke a certain way, or if Wallace crashed but Gibbs did not, the following race was simple. At any given time, about half the field represented a playoff berth for the 23XI Racing veteran, and another half represented a late bid from a new driver. Any new driver leading a charge through the track's famous packs was a contender all over again for a few seconds, and any mistake that saw them fall back through the field was a potentially season-ruining moment.

The drama also factored into both of the race's major crashes. The big, dumb, track-sweeping "Big One" crashes at Daytona and Talladega are a violent lottery, and the one fans saw on Saturday ended a lot of driver's hopes at random. Before the first crash, Ty Gibbs was on pace to take the a stage win and put himself in a great position to win the race itself. That was until he and teammate Christopher Bell attempted an awkward mid-corner bump draft that sent Gibbs spinning into leader Ryan Blaney. Not only did that crash end Gibbs's shot this season, the resulting chaos also wiped out 2022 playoff driver Austin Cindric's hopes.

Ryan Preece briefly led a group of three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers that all needed to win before falling back in the pack. Later, he made a charge to surge back into the playoff conversation. That ended with the night's second crash, which resulted in a massive barrel roll by Preece through the backstretch infield. (He walked away from the crash and has since been released from the hospital.)


Both crashes were unfortunate results of a style of racing that requires drivers to bump draft one another in the middle of 200-MPH traffic. They were also big, dramatic moments—the exact kind NASCAR was hoping to manufacture with this event.

The second crash left the race with an overtime ending, a two-lap shootout where the top-ten controlled Wallace's fate. Roush Fenway Keselowski's surging duo of Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski eventually pulled away with some slick synchronized bump drafting, rendering all the drama moot and handing Wallace his first career playoff bid. It was an entirely manufactured moment, one where the big prize is staying sixteenth in points with ten races to go in the season, but it was a thrill nonetheless.

Is this championship format ideal? No, of course not. The ideal format is the one used until 2003, where the driver that collects the most points over every championship race wins the trophy at the end. This marks the 20th year since NASCAR gave up on the classic format, and so we are long past the point of having to accept that NASCAR is committed to this particular mistake. All of this is bad, but a night that leans into the ridiculousness like this and conjures up some sort of thrill is a better kind of bad than any other. If the rules are going to be made up for the sole purpose of manufacturing drama, that manufactured drama might as well be exciting.

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