The best team or person not winning a championship is not exactly rare. Off the top of my head, I’d be willing to be it happens more often than it actually does. Aside from the Premier League and F1, where the regular season IS the playoffs, the playoffs are there to fuck shit up, and deliver entertainment to the people in the stands or watching at home.
Take a look at the NHL playoffs for instance. The NHL has been awarding the Presidents’ Trophy to the team with the best record since 1986. In that time, the number of teams who have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, a be crowned the ACTUAL league champions: eight. In 34 seasons of the NHL awarding both trophies, less than 25 percent of the time has the “best” team won the championship. Also keep in mind that the greatest team in NBA history, by regular season standards, did not win the title that year. And nobody complained about how the NBA playoffs were unfair or how they should have been awarded more help for whatever reason.
This is all a very long way of saying that in no way did Kevin Harvick get screwed or that NASCAR’s playoff system is biased or whatever excuse you want to use. Yes, Kevin Harvick has won a whopping NINE races this season…but none of those nine races were when it mattered most, and as a result he finds himself an also-ran for next week’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race in Phoenix.
Had this NASCAR season been run under the old format where it was simply points accumulated over the course of a season, Harvick would have won going away, and all but officially locked up the title weeks ago. This doesn’t mean you need to feel sorry for him, or like he got screwed this season. I’ve seen plenty of people say, “Oh well the regular season winner should get more help,” or, “The regular season winner should automatically get into the finals,” and to that I say: No, they shouldn’t. Harvick got a bonus 15 points for winning the regular season title, essentially, a free race worth of points/positioning before a playoff lap had ever been raced. Essentially, the NHL or NBA equivalent of qualifying with the top seed and getting a free win or two to start the playoffs.
Harvick, and every other driver who qualified for the playoffs, knew the rules and how the playoffs worked long before they started. It isn’t exactly a secret, and after every race these teams are doing the math and playing out scenarios to see how likely it is that they’re safe in the next round, or what they need to do to try and advance if they’re not there yet. Again, Harvick was probably the runaway winner this season if they run under the old points format (which they haven’t run since since 2003, so it’s not like this system is new or shocking to anyone after 17 seasons), but he didn’t. It’s no different than any other great team or individual blowing it when it counts in the playoffs.
The other side of this to remember is that NASCAR is an entertainment business. Yes, they promote the sport and make sure the drivers race fair and whatever else, but their bread and butter that keeps them and the drivers getting paid is selling their races to TV channels, advertisement spots to products that want to be seen during their races, tickets (when there’s no COVID) to the races. Let me ask you this: Had the old points system been in place for yesterday’s race, the penultimate race of the 2020 NASCAR season, would ANYBODY outside of the most diehard NASCAR fans and media members be talking about it? You and I both know the answer is, “no.”
From an entertainment standpoint yesterday’s race was amazing. The final 75 laps or so were white-knuckle inducing laps, even if you weren’t super into any of the drivers that were fighting it out. You had three cars up near the front that needed a win to get in, and were in position to do so. Then you had Harvick, Denny Hamiln, and Brad Keslowski, probably the three best drivers in the circuit right now, fighting for every spot they could get because they knew that of those three, only two of them would go through if the race ended up with a winner who hadn’t clinched a spot in the championship yet. And that trio of drivers with 10 laps to go were separated by less than two points each.
Tell me again, which would you rather watch: Just another race at Martinsville where the overall championship was essentially locked up weeks ago, and nobody gives a shit if Kevin Harvick finishes 1st or 15th, or a race where they could have had cameras on four different battles going on in the race, knowing that passing or losing even one spot on the track could mean the difference between winning the race and advancing, or finishing high enough to advance to the championship race? From an entertainment and watching from home on TV perspective, give me the second choice every time.
It’s a bummer that Harvick won’t get the chance to race for a title in a season in which he was the emphatic regular season champion with his nine wins. But nothing about his failure to make the championship was unfair. He had his chance, just like every one driver in the playoffs, and he didn’t drive well enough. It’s as simple as that. Nobody to blame but himself. And it was entertaining as hell to watch as it all unfolded Sunday afternoon.