The race for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship is here.
After a hectic, crash-filled race at Daytona International Speedway, the 16-driver playoff field for 2023 is set.
Just like any other American sport, NASCAR uses a unique playoff format to determine its champion each year. The 10-week postseason begins at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network.
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How does it all work? Here’s a full explanation of the NASCAR playoffs, including how points are awarded, how many drivers make it, how eliminations work and more:
How are points awarded during each NASCAR race?
The goal during a NASCAR race is obvious – every driver wants to finish as well as possible. Every position closer to the lead gives drivers more points, which are used to determine the standings and ultimately the playoff field.
Each race has between 36 and 40 drivers, depending on the event. The race winner receives 40 points, followed by 35 points for second, 34 points for third, 33 points for fourth and so on with each position down receiving one less point. Drivers who finish between 36th and 40th receive just one point.
Additionally, drivers can earn points in the first two stages of the race. Each event is broken up into three stages, similar to a hockey game. At the end of the first two stages, points are awarded to the top 10 finishers – the stage winner earns 10 points, second place gets nine, all the way down to 10th place earning one.
So, if a driver wins the first two stages and then wins the race, he or she can earn a total of 60 points. On the other hand, a driver could finish second in the first two stages (18 points), then crash out to finish 36th, and still earn 19 points for the race. This incentivizes drivers to give 100% throughout the entire race in order to maximize their points.
What is a NASCAR playoff point?
Playoff points are extra points that drivers accumulate throughout the season to use as bonus points during the playoffs. To start the postseason, each of the 16 playoff drivers resets to 2,000 overall points. Then, each drivers’ playoff point total is added to that amount.
So, how do drivers earn these playoff points? The easiest way is to win. Each race victory is worth five playoff points. The winner of each stage earns one playoff point. That means seven playoff points are awarded in each race (two stages plus the race winner).
Drivers also earn playoff points based on their regular season standings position. The driver who has the most overall points after the regular season earns an additional 15 playoff points. So, winning the regular season championship is equivalent to three race wins (15 playoff points). Second in the standings earns 10 playoff points, third gets eight playoff points, fourth gets seven playoff points, fifth gets sixth playoff points and so on down to 10th place, which earns one playoff point.
For example, let’s say a driver finishes third in the regular season standings with two race wins and four stage wins. That driver would earn eight playoff points from the standings, 10 playoff points from the race wins and four playoff points from the stage wins – giving the driver 22 playoff points to begin the postseason with 2,022 overall points.
How do drivers qualify for the NASCAR playoffs?
While a race win doesn’t 100% guarantee a playoff spot, it basically does. Sixteen drivers make the playoffs – the top 15 drivers with the most wins and the regular season champion. There are 26 races in the regular season, and there has never been more than 16 winners in a regular season since this playoff format was adopted in 2014. So, over the last nine years, winning in the regular season has been a guaranteed playoff ticket.
If there are fewer than 16 winners – which there always has been – the highest winless drivers in the standings make the playoffs. That means if 12 drivers win a race, the four winless drivers with the most overall points would make the playoffs. Those winless drivers would obviously likely start with fewer playoff points than the winners, putting them at a disadvantage.
How many drivers make the NASCAR playoffs?
As aforementioned, 16 drivers make the NASCAR playoffs – the 15 drivers with the most wins and the regular season champion. If there are fewer than 16 winners, the winless drivers with the most overall points round out the playoff field.
What is the NASCAR playoffs format?
The NASCAR playoffs are broken up into four rounds – the Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8 and Championship 4.
The first three rounds consist of three races before the Championship 4 race. Four drivers are eliminated in each of the first three rounds before four drivers are left battling for the title.
Drivers automatically advance to the next round by winning one of the three races in a round. If a driver does not win a race in the round, they need to accumulate as many points as possible. The four drivers with the fewest points are eliminated after the third race of each round.
At the end of the Round of 16, the 12 remaining drivers have their points reset to 3,000 plus their earned playoff points from the entire season. The four eliminated drivers are reverted back to 2,000 points plus their points earned in the three playoff races.
At the end of the Round of 12, the eight remaining drivers are reset to 4,000 plus their playoff points – while the next four eliminated drivers return to 2,000 plus their points earned in the first six playoff races. This process allows the 12 drivers who do not make the Championship 4 to still compete to finish up to fifth in the final standings.
In the Championship 4 race, the champion is crowned based solely on finishing position. Points do not matter for the finalists – it just comes down to who crosses the finish line first.
What happens to drivers eliminated from the playoffs?
Unlike other sports, eliminated teams still compete throughout the playoffs. Each of the 10 playoff races is still filled with 36 to 40 drivers – even the Championship 4 race.
Eliminated drivers still have plenty to compete for, though. Non-playoff drivers can finish as high as 17th in the overall standings, with each additional spot giving their team more prize money at the end of the season. Eliminated playoff drivers can finish anywhere from fifth to 16th in the standings.
The final 10 races can essentially be used as pressure-free test sessions for eliminated teams to get ready for next season. They can try different car setups or strategies without having to worry about competing for a championship. While they would obviously prefer winning it all, the playoffs can be useful if teams find something that works for the following year.
Who made the NASCAR playoffs in 2023?
Through the 26-race regular season, there were 13 different drivers who won a race to clinch a playoff spot. The remaining three spots were filled by the winless drivers who scored the most overall points. Here’s the full standings entering the playoffs:
1. William Byron, 2,036 points
2. Martin Truex Jr., 2,036 points
3. Denny Hamlin, 2,025 points
4. Chris Buescher, 2,021 points
5. Kyle Busch, 2,019 points
6. Kyle Larson, 2,017 points
7. Christopher Bell, 2,014 points
8. Ross Chastain, 2,011 points
9. Brad Keselowski, 2,010 points
10. Tyler Reddick, 2,009 points
11. Joey Logano, 2,008 points
12. Ryan Blaney, 2,008 points
13. Michael McDowell, 2,007 points
14. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 2,005 points
15. Kevin Harvick, 2,004 points
16. Bubba Wallace, 2,000 points