Playoff racing in NASCAR is a controversial subject. For as long as the concept has existed, and as long as it sticks around, the balance of manufactured excitement and traditional motor car racing will be a confusing and often frustrating ordeal. But while we debate the ins and outs of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff formats, scoring issues, crap shoot inconsistencies, and similar concerns against the old guard of Championship racing as we know it, an even bigger blunder has been allowed to bubble under the surface.
The Camping World Truck Series, much like its NASCAR top series counterparts in Xfinity and Cup, have a Playoff elimination format that crowns a champion with a four driver winner* take all at the season finale at Phoenix. While the end result is the same, the road to Phoenix is a much different journey for the Trucks, and is a confusing horrible mess for most of the parties involved. The entire exercise of the Truck Championship generates wanton malaze to the schedule, to the drivers, to the broadcasters, and to the concept of developing driver talent to the bare foundation of its meaning. Let’s start with what’s the most obvious, the schedule.
For the purposes of this article I will attempt to keep comparisons to the other two NASCAR series to a minimum. There will be times when it is required though, and that’s most particular with the schedule. In the Cup Series, while not popular with a large percentage of race fans, the last ten races of the season do give an easy to follow narrative of a “second season” playoff hunt that SOMEWHAT mirrors traditional team sports in intended excitement. The Xfinity schedule, which has less of a need for points driven dramatics thanks to the week-to-week level of competition, still provides a bit of drama and narrative to drivers we’re likely to see racing on Sunday the very next season. The Truck series? Well let’s run the numbers.
10 drivers qualify for a 3 round playoff series that starts in July, takes until November to sort out, and has only 7 races within that nearly 4 month timeframe. How can we be expected to keep up with something like that? How can I get upset at something ThorSport might have done in October when I can’t remember what happened at IRP back in July? Throughout the entirety of the Truck playoffs there is but one instance of a back-to-back pair of races, with the rest of the events multiple weeks apart. Schedule gaps aren’t a killer for traditionally scored point Championships. It’s not ideal for a top level series but even IndyCar keeps its points focus decent even with their spread out schedule of races. If given the choice I’d much rather keep the schedule spread and drop the Playoff format, which could open up the series to do even more unique things with the track selection. But before I write another 6000 words about how more short tracks would be good for the series, let’s talk about the drivers.
As a feeder series, the Trucks are expected to be that first great filter of those that will go far in this sport and those that are going to find a new path in life. While racing will never be a true meritocracy, we can imagine the separation of the true pros from the also-rans taking place in an environment like the Truck series. In the last few seasons the series has delivered on that promise, but almost to a comical level. With ARCA not holding the same amount of career development as it used to, the Trucks end up with a LOT of drivers in the roster that shouldn’t be pursuing racing as a career, but thanks to financial commitments are still thrown to the wolves for more races than they frankly deserve. In the older days of the series, there were several veteran drivers each year that served as a litmus test that could silently gauge a driver’s performance. If you could take on a Todd Bodine or a Mike Skinner heads up at a big fancy NASCAR facility it was a good indication that you were ready for greener pastures. Save for a few exceptions depending on the race event, most of the field in a typical Truck race is at the same place in their career, and the near battle royale of some of the races makes it hard to see who the shining stars really should be. This sort of thing is going to be difficult to change, and maybe it doesn’t need as much adjustment as others might think. But if you’re going to have this level of instability in your series, you’re a lot better off without an elimination playoff format.
Taking a hefty load of wild untamed talent and throwing them into the intended dramatics and desperation of a multistage playoff is only going to hurt the series long term, and we can already see it. Some drivers are focused on their season, and with enough coaching from experienced teams and crews can take on the big picture and win championships. For the other 30ish drivers and teams in the field however, it’s hard to see what’s even happening. For that, we need to turn to the broadcasters.
Fox Sports splits the Cup and Xfinity television schedules with NBC, but keeps the entirety of the Truck series under their broadcasting purview. When done properly, having the same people call and narrate on the comings and goings of a season can be a benefit. When done by FS1 however, it just doesn’t work. This won’t be a critique as much on the people we hear, as I feel Vince Welch, Phil Parsons, Michael Waltrip and others do a decent enough job of at least keeping up with the series. They are NASCAR people, and as such are giving it their best effort…but they aren’t being given much of a chance to succeed. As what is certainly a cost cutting venture for the second half of the season, the FS1 broadcast team calls the race not from the track on location, but from a studio in Charlotte. This essentially means the announcers are watching the same things we are at home, and will struggle to provide any additional detail to what’s happening on site. While pit road reporters are still on site, they still have their rather difficult job to focus on and can’t provide that extra layer of what we deserve as a viewer. I ramble all of this out to you as a point to show that the Playoffs don’t really seem to matter in this series if we’re actively trying to do LESS to provide the product when the stakes are supposed to be getting higher. With the previously discussed spread out schedule, the TV team has a greater responsibility to keep the viewer’s interest going, and as a whole they just aren’t up to the task. Less cameras on site also means less focus on the non playoff drivers, and massive holes in the supposed analytical development of these drivers. “What caused that 15 car pileup late in the race? Well since the culprit was eliminated two playoff rounds ago…I guess we’ll never know for sure.” I watch just about every NASCAR race that comes on a screen, and I’ve never felt less prepared for a Championship race than I do this year. Ty Majeski looks pretty good by winning two of the last three races, but I can tell you fuck-all about the rest of what’s happening.
Playoff racing in NASCAR looks to have less popularity than ever. With the racing product being strong across the board, and the concern of driver safety coming back to the forefront through a number of different incidents, the manufactured dramatics seem like the tool of a bygone era…and that’s a wonderful thing. Still, financial commitments and big business means changes will come slowly, so we can’t expect it all to be swept under the rug in one swift motion. As Craftsman Tools comes back into the fold as the series title sponsor in 2023, we have a great opportunity to usher in a new era of the series and change things for the better. A “traditional” season-long points series with a greater focus on the drivers themselves will allow the series to shine as its own experience, and we can get back to developing talent rather than hoping for just another spectacle. We love to watch racing for what it is, and for what it CAN provide. An organically exciting points championship is the reward for a competitive season, and such splendor shouldn’t be handed out as a tasteless facsimile, it should be earned. It’s important to watch and reflect on the moments WE find exciting and fantastic, not to be promised something we couldn’t expect to be delivered in the first place. Racing is made exciting by those who compete, support, and engage with the sport on their own personal level, not by a set of points procedures on a piece of paper. Hopefully, we can start to remember that soon.
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