NASCAR Playoff Rules, explained

NASCAR changed its Chase — er, playoffs — format again this year, so don’t feel bad if you’re not an expert on the all the rules yet.

Some of you might be embarrassed to ask questions on Twitter or admit you don’t understand what can be a confusing system. If so, that’s OK! Hopefully this will help.

Here’s a quick primer on the playoff format this year:

Overall, the format hasn’t changed much. Just like the previous two seasons, there are three rounds and a championship race. Four drivers are eliminated after each round, so the playoff field will be whittled from 16 to 12 to eight to four over the course of the first nine weeks.

— In another carryover from the previous format, a race win by a playoff driver will advance that driver into the next round. Even though “playoff points” have been a big talking point this year, it’s still win-and-in for each round. Then the remaining spots will be filled by non-winners based on points.

— Speaking of playoff points, those represent the biggest and most important change from the previous system. Drivers collected playoff points all season (one point for a stage win and five points for a race win, plus bonus points based on finishing in the top 10 of the regular season standings). Now that the playoffs have begun, drivers will start each round with that amount of points as long as they’re still in the competition.

Let’s pause to take a quick look at how many points each driver has heading into Chicago:

  1. Martin Truex Jr. — 53
  2. Kyle Larson — 33
  3. Kyle Busch — 29
  4. Brad Keselowski — 19
  5. Jimmie Johnson — 17
  6. Kevin Harvick — 15
  7. Denny Hamlin — 13
  8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — 10
  9. Ryan Blaney — 8
  10. Chase Elliott — 6
  11. Ryan Newman — 5
  12. Kurt Busch — 5
  13. Kasey Kahne — 5
  14. Austin Dillon — 5
  15. Matt Kenseth — 5
  16. Jamie McMurray — 3

— It’s important to remember drivers can continue to add to their playoff points in each round. So if Truex wins two stages at Chicagoland, he will start Round 2 with 55 points instead of 53. It doesn’t matter whether he “uses them up” or not; they will be there to start the round if he’s still in the playoffs.

— Of course, the rules for the championship race at Homestead are different. That race is still a winner-take-all, no-points event for the final four drivers. Yeah, there will still be stages at Homestead, but they don’t matter for the final four drivers (they’re just for drivers still battling for fifth in the point standings). So even though Truex has a ton of playoff points, that won’t matter in the final race. It might help him get there, but it won’t help him win the title.

— A question I’ve seen a lot on Twitter this week is what happens if a race winner — or the champion — has an encumbered finish in an elimination race? Technically, NASCAR would have to change the outcome of the round (somewhat likely) or the championship (very unlikely). NASCAR would disagree with this, but if the championship car was found to be illegal several days later, I don’t think we’d ever hear about it. Officials do not want to strip the title and award it to someone else days after the race has already concluded.