Analysis: Playoff format emphasizes winning — no matter what it takes

FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR Playoffs format places an emphasis on winning — even more so than the regular season.
Joey Logano knew that when he chose to bump Martin Truex Jr. for the win last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. As he said when he emerged from his No. 22 Ford on the start-finish line, it was all about advancing to the title race at Miami.
Gone are the days when drivers will cruise in 25th to clinch the championship — or sealing the title with 2 races left in the season. Every champion since the playoff format was enacted in 2014 has won the title by winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“… You are in the playoffs and have an opportunity to lock yourself into the Championship 4. You don’t know what is going to happen the next two races,” Logano said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Some fans love it and some don’t. Either way you are going to have plenty of questions afterward. If you don’t do it, they want to know why you didn’t do it. If you do it, half are happy and half aren’t. I am not here to make everyone happy. I am here to do my job for my race team…”
MORE: Truex, Logano on Martinsville finish
Several drivers were critical of Logano’s move, but many understood his thought process; he didn’t have the speed of Martin Truex Jr. and thought Martinsville was his best bet to advance to the Championship 4. It’s the nature of the playoffs; No. 18 crew chief Adam Stevens told that “You’re going to see desperation rear its ugly head on occasion” in these types of situations with so much on the line.
It begs the question, does the NASCAR Playoffs format make full-contact moments the “new norm” by compelling drivers – especially those who haven’t been as dominant – to go for the win, no matter what it takes?
“I certainly feel for Martin, but I can understand Joey’s standpoint,” former playoff driver Erik Jones told Friday. “If I’m Martin, I’m mad; but if I’m Joey, it’s your ticket to Homestead. And I think Joey looked at it as if he didn’t win that race, he was going to have a tough time to make it to the final four. They haven’t had enough speed probably to win the next two races or even pointing their way in was going to be challenging.
“So, he saw his window and had to do what he felt like he had to do. I think most drivers would have made a similar move and I think Martin at times would have made that move in certain situations.
“It’s a tough spot, but it’s racing and Martinsville and this format is going to make you make those kind of moves to get to Homestead.”

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Based on the NASCAR community’s reaction to Logano’s maneuver, the debate of “to bump or not to bump” is usually more gray than black-and-white. Sometimes it just depends on who the other competitor is.
But even that is complicated.
“There (are) certain guys and individuals that you can race that wouldn’t do those sorts of things,” Kyle Busch said. “Names that come to mind would be Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. that you can race with and battle with and do it cleanly and there’s guys that you have names that you know are going to just flat out run into you on Lap 128 when they get to your rear bumper and move you out of the way in a 500-lap race. OK, whatever dude.
“It’s all about who it is. It’s their norm and if it’s their norm then you have to treat them back because it’s their norm, but when you do it back because you’re doing it to somebody that you know will do it then you’re now associated as being that kind of guy. How do you balance that? I don’t know. For instance, if it was me and Joey (Logano) and Joey flat out ran over me when he got to me at Martinsville then when I go back on him the next time, am I just doing it because it’s Joey or am I doing it because it’s me.
“I would say I’m doing it because of who it is not that’s the way I want to do it.”
Truex Jr. solidified Busch’s theory and reinforced his initial post-Martinsville reaction minutes later during his own media availability, saying “if you get in a certain situation where it would be wise to remember what happened, that’s there.”
“I try to do things the right way. I try to race the way I want to be raced. Sometimes I get taken advantage of because of that. At the end of the day, I know when I beat a guy, it’s because I outdrove him and didn’t run into him. That’s my way of thinking and some people disagree with it. Some people think it’s perfectly fine to knock a guy out of the way to get a win. My opinion, it’s not. We all think differently. It’s the not the way I have ever done it. Whether it’s Go-Karts or Modified cars. No matter what it was, that’s the way I was taught to race.
“You race fair. You race clean and you race as hard as you can straight up. I can say that every single win I have had, I earned it. That’s just the way it is.”
WATCH: Truex gets candid on Martinsville finish
To Truex’s point, everyone’s different. And at the end of the day, it’s the NASCAR Playoffs. It’s intense, promotes aggression and it all boils down to winning. Some drivers take liberties with that and some remain true to their own moral code. Some fans and drivers condemned Logano’s move and some applauded it.
But no one can deny the format makes these last few races way more exciting to watch.
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