NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Elimination Format: 10-Year Anniversary

Ten years ago on this day, January 30, NASCAR announced a major overhaul to the Cup Series Playoff system by revealing a new 10-week format and postseason battle for the championship. This new format places a heavy emphasis on winning throughout an entire season for an expanded postseason field. It also leaves very little room for error as the field narrows by quarter sections per round throughout the Playoffs until the last competitor standing after the finale will emerge as a champion in NASCAR’s premier series.

From the new format, a victory for any full-time competitor who qualified and competed in every regular-season event on the schedule, from the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway through Race No. 26, the regular-season finale, would guarantee him/herself a berth for the 10-race Playoffs (except for waiver instances from NASCAR that would even grant those who did not compete the entire regular-season stretch to still be eligible to contend for the Playoffs). In addition, the Playoff field that started with 10 vacant spots (2004-06) and grew to 12 (2007-12) and 13 (2013) would expand to 16, with those accumulating the most regular-season victories along with points and a winless regular-season points leader (if needed due to less than 16 regular-season victors for the latter two categories) clinching spots for the postseason format.

Once the Playoffs commenced, the first nine postseason events would be sliced into three per Playoff round and eliminate the bottom four competitors in the Playoff standings, from 16 to 12 to eight and lastly, four. Within the new elimination format, a victory within any round (maximum three for three races per round) would guarantee a Playoff competitor a spot into the proceeding round with the remaining vacant rounds being set by those highest in points. After each round, the remaining competitors who are still championship eligible would have their points reset while those who are eliminated would have their points total readjusted to the normal points format in sync with the rest of the field, but still eligible to battle as high as for fifth place in the standings.

Once the Round of 8, the penultimate round, concluded, the top-four competitors in points would transfer to the Championship 4 round and square off against one another in the final event on the schedule. During the finale, the highest-finishing title contender would be awarded the Bill France Cup championship-winning trophy in NASCAR’s premier series.

Since the inception of the current Playoff format (2014-23), a total of 40 competitors qualified for the Playoffs at least once, either by winning at least once throughout the regular-season stretch or based on points. In addition, 19 teams had at least one competitor/entry represented in the Playoffs. Through the 2023 season, the following names that include Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are the only competitors to make the postseason since the current Playoff format’s debut in 2014. Harvick, however, is set to depart this list after retiring from full-time Cup Series competition as he is replaced by incoming rookie Josh Berry for the 2024 season.

Within the list of 40 names, 19 clinched a Playoff spot by winning for the first time in the Cup Series in the process. In 2014, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger guaranteed themselves first-time opportunities to make the Playoffs and contend for a championship after both scored their first Cup career victory throughout the regular-season stretch. Additional names of first-time winners claiming automatic berths to the Playoffs from 2014 to 2023 include Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher, Chase Briscoe, William Byron, Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Michael McDowell, Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez. The most recent newcomer to the Playoffs is Bubba Wallace, who secured the 16th and final transfer berth into the 2023 Playoffs based on points.

Of the 40 Playoff qualifiers recorded, 16 transferred to the Championship 4 round and contended for a Cup Series championship. Of the 16 finalists, eight won a championship. Of the eight championship-winning competitors, seven became first-time Cup champions. During the current Playoff’s inaugural use in 2014, Kevin Harvick achieved his first Cup title after fending off a late charge from title rival Ryan Newman to also win the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Most recently, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney etched his name as a first-time Cup champion in 2023 after emerging as the highest-finishing title contender over Kyle Larson, William Byron and Christopher Bell during the season’s finale at Phoenix Raceway. Other notable names who became first-time champions from the format include Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. The only competitor who had previously won a championship during the Playoff’s former use from 2004 to 2013 and proceeded to win again during the Playoff’s current use is Jimmie Johnson, who joined Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only competitors to win a record-tying seven titles in 2016. From the list of seven competitors who became first-time champions, Busch and Logano would each proceed to win a second Cup title (2019 & 2022).

With the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season set to mark the 11th consecutive season of the current Playoff format’s use, it presents an abundance of new memories toward the postseason battle for the premier series championship that remains to be determined with the commencement of this year’s Playoffs.

With this year’s Cup Series regular-season finale occurring at Darlington Raceway on September 1, the 2024 Cup Series Playoffs are scheduled to commence at Atlanta Motor Speedway a week later, on September 8, and air at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network. The 2024 Cup Series Championship Race is set to return to Phoenix Raceway for a fifth consecutive season and air on November 10 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of


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