The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race started at 10 p.m. ET on Friday night, which is almost past my bedtime. That’s why, when I saw the driver who has dominated this entire season get eliminated from the series’ championship, I thought it was a dream. It really happened.
That driver was William Byron, a rookie who has won six of the 22 races—yes, nearly a third of them—so far this season. A spot in the championship finale, as well as the title itself, seemed like an almost guarantee, but a blown engine in Friday night’s race at Phoenix International Raceway destroyed it. Byron won’t even compete for the title in next week’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
This whole “playoff elimination” format goes along with NASCAR’s rather new Chase for the Championship, being used in all three of its top series for the first time ever this year. And now that it’s had a little while to settle in, more major competitors are getting the cut when it feels like they shouldn’t have.
Across all three series, the format essentially eliminates a few drivers every few races until only four remain for the final race in Miami, where the remaining competitors go for the title. The top finisher in that single race is the champion. A win in the current elimination round means an automatic berth into the next one, but good luck counting on a win per round when each round is three races.
The big problem is that the format resets points after each elimination round, meaning that drivers like Byron have almost no advantage over the rest of the field. Byron hasn’t been nearly as dominant in the Chase races, but he did go into the Phoenix race second in the points standings for that round.
When drivers get eliminated after just three races, a blown engine can, er, make your chances go up in smoke. Just ask Brad Keselowski and a Sprint Cup Series championship favorite, Martin Truex Jr., who had the same thing happen at Talladega Superspeedway.
I don’t know how to feel about NASCAR’s Chase formats. They’re exciting, sure, but what’s excitement at the expense of the competitors who deserve the title?
But, at the same time, Alabama’s dominating football team could show up at the national championship and have half of their starting lineup randomly get hurt—almost the equivalent of a blown engine.
NASCAR is making itself more akin to ball sports, but I guess I’m still in the traditional racing mindset that rewards consistency over unpredictability.