Things were going from bad to worse for Martin Truex Jr. In the thick of Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond, Virginia, the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion was hunting for a win to give himself a playoff spot but instead found himself stuck. Truex was just clipped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 156, and although he battled back to finish seventh on the final lap and ahead of rookie Ryan Blaney, he lost ground in the NASCAR playoff standings. As a result, the 2022 field of drivers ranked 5th in average finish and 5th overall will likely need a Hail Mary victory in one of the next two races to qualify for the sport’s 16 playoff spots.
Truex is currently ranked 17th in the playoff standings with an all-important elimination on the error side. And at first glance, Truex’s ranking is confusing: In 24 races, he’s finished first in nearly half of the top 10 (11) and finished 5 more (three) than finished second (two). His 11.8 lap average in any given race is trailing only two drivers, Chase Elliott and Blaney. So in terms of week-to-week consistency and staying at the front of the pack, it’s hard to argue that 16 drivers better than Truex deserve a better chance at the title this season.
However, in Truex’s case, there is one major component missing from gameplay: first-class. Most of the season for his entire run, in 2010 He hasn’t won since the second Richmond race in 2021, 11 months ago. That’s a big problem with the current winning system, where prizes are won at a surprisingly high rate. As long as no more than 16 drivers win the race – and the overall points leader is one of them – each race winner is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, no matter how short their career in the entire season.
In the early days of the sport, Truex came very close to winning the championship. If NASCAR still uses the long-standing pregame championship system for total driver points standings (which was in place for decades until the Chase for the Cup began in 2004), Truex would be playing for a spot behind Elliott and would finish fourth. The run of the season. But the current era focuses on wins, a shift from the 2003 season, when the highly consistent Matt Kenseth won fewer races (one) than nine drivers — including Ryan Newman, who claimed eight. He had many checkered flags with Kenseth many times but finished a distant sixth in the points. While NASCAR has denied that Kenseth’s success was the driving force behind the race’s creation (and focused on growing — and growing — winning), it’s clear that the sport has chosen to err on the side of rewarding winners rather than honest winners. ever since.
In most seasons, the existing system still allows drivers like Truex to sneak in, as non-race winners qualify in order based on point standings. But in the year 2022 saw an impressive string of wins in the first 24 races of the season. Including Kevin Harvick’s recent improbable back-to-back victories, 15 different drivers have won this year. In 1972
That means 16 of the most coveted playoff spots have been snagged with seed wins, leaving few leftovers to fight for the winners. Blaney didn’t win this season either, despite posting numbers as impressive as (if not more than) Truex’s. If the two drivers’ positions were reversed, we would be talking about the unfairness of Blaney missing out on the final. Either way, it seems clear that at least one of the top drivers in the 2022 Cup Series will not have the chance to drive for the championship.
Point systems and play structures are inherently arbitrary in racing, and of course there are longstanding complaints about the edge issues they cause. In the year In 2017, Truex himself benefited greatly from the newly introduced bonus points system for stage winners during his narrow championship victory over Kyle Busch, Harvick and Brad Kejlowski. (In fairness, Truex was clearly the best driver that season and it would be a shame if he wasn’t the champion.) Sometimes NASCAR’s famously tight playoff system gives, sometimes it takes away.
Two decades ago, NASCAR responded to an era when victories didn’t count enough by raising the value of each checkered flag. This season could be the opposite – one with multiple winners and exposing the limitations of all but guaranteeing playoff spots at the expense of consistent driving. Regardless, some deserving drivers will be squeezed by the system, and it’s a lesson Trux may learn the hard way over the next few weeks.