The concept of a playoff format began in short track racing in 2001 before making its way the the big leagues with NASCAR in 2004.
Now, 15 years later, playoffs are returning to short track racing in a big way courtesy of the Championship Racing Association (CRA), and while the move may at first be met with mixed opinions, the end result promises to be intriguing.
Make room, NASCAR. The Chase isn’t just for you anymore.
As reported on Tuesday, CRA officials have announced a playoff format for each of their four tours – the ARCA/CRA Super Series Powered by JEGS, JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour, Vore’s Welding CRA Late Model Sportsman Powered by JEGS and the Lawrence Towing CRA Street Stocks Powered by JEGS.
Each series will host varying amounts of events, but their playoff formats will all be similar.
Each tour will have their schedule separated into two sectors – the regular season and a four-race playoff, dubbed the Chase.
The playoffs will consist of the top eight drivers and teams from each series that have competed in at least 75% of the regular season’s events. Much like in NASCAR’s postseason, Chase positions will be awarded first to any teams that are able to win during the regular season, with any remaining positions being awarded based off of points.
Once the Chase begins, the eight eligible teams will first compete in a three-race opening round. The top four teams from that round –first on wins, and then by points– will advance to October’s championship finale at Winchester Speedway, with the highest finisher of the four in the final race earning the championship in their respective series.
The move is a significant shift from the historical season-long points battle that yielded Cody Coughlin two championships in 2016. However, it isn’t unprecedented.
The format essentially mirrors NASCAR’s modern postseason format, and in doing so brings the sport of auto racing full circle in regards to postseason structures. Why? Because NASCAR themselves got the idea of a postseason from another short track tour.
It was the USAR Hooters Pro Cup that first came up with the idea of a postseason in 2001, implementing the Four Champions Playoff, a format that split the series into two divisions (North and South) and pitted the best drivers from each division against each other in a season-ending battle lasting anywhere between four-to-six races.
The format quickly found success for the tour upon implementation, and NASCAR took notice.
Just three years later, America’s most popular racing organization rolled out a similar championship structure for their premier series.
USAR ultimately ceased operations following the 2014 season before returning as the CARS Tour, but NASCAR’s postseason continued on, evolving into the modern day playoff format and expanding to the series’ XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series last season.
Now, in 2017, CRA will take NASCAR’s lead and adopt their playoff format.
Whether the playoff will find success in the midwest late model tour remains to be seen, but initial signs point toward an exciting championship fight.
Purists scoff at the idea of a playoff format, and perhaps rightfully so, but it can’t be denied that NASCAR’s postseason has gone on to produce some of the most exciting moments in series history over the last three seasons.
From win-and-advance moments like Brad Keselowski’s 2014 Talladega Superspeedway triumph to shocking exits like Matt Kenseth’s race-ending crash at Phoenix Raceway just last month, each edition of the modern Chase has fostered the sort of classic moments befitting a true postseason.
Mix that sort of postseason intensity into short track racing, where there’s already a wealth of excitement, and the resulting formula appears poised for success.
If nothing else, the format could help the series add intrigue to what’s at time been a dull championship battle in the final weeks.
The season-ending Winchester 400 will always be exciting because of the race’s crown jewel status, but the championship storylines haven’t always matched the race itself.
2016’s Super Series finale was an outlier to this concept as Coughlin and Dalton Armstrong dueled to the very end, but other finales, such as Grant Quinlan’s 2015 title run, haven’t been as interesting.
Such is the nature of racing under a full season format, where consistency or dominance from one team can quell a championship fight before it begins.
Under a playoff format, however, no team can run away with the title.
Starting in 2017, championship blowouts will be no more. Each title battle will come down to the bitter end at one of the circuit’s most challenging venues – the High Banks of Winchester.
Thanks to the 75% rule, the field contesting the title should be strong, too.
Courtesy of the rule, requiring teams to start in just 75% of the regular season races to be eligible for the Chase, the organizations that can’t afford a trip down to Tennessee or up to Michigan will still have a chance to compete for a crown.
The rule is critical for the series, both providing incentive for teams close in the standings or with a victory to attempt to complete the majority of the tour and helping underfunded operations stay alive in the title fight if they can’t afford to complete the entire tour.
Organizations that previously could bank on riding to the top of the points by virtue of starting each event will now see a new challenge, and teams that are accustomed to running solely for wins will be given increased opportunity to claim the series’ ultimate prize.
To purists, that will seem unfair, but to fans in attendance at the final four races of the season, the heightened intensity should prove beguiling.
The championship might not always go to the year’s best team as a result of the change. But for the first time in a while, all four of CRA’s championship battles will come down to October in Winchester, and that should prove to be a story worth telling.