Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR

NASCAR looks, feels and acts a lot differently this year. The cars, drivers and the tracks are mostly the same, but NASCAR went all “sports ball” on our beloved American motorsport. Now, the sport’s about to start its first-ever “NASCAR playoffs.” Those playoffs come with a new set of rules.

Some version of a postseason has been around since 2004 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and it’s been known as the “Chase” since it began. But in NASCAR’s quest to become more and more like the ball sports of the world, aspects of the sport underwent name changes to “overtime” and the “playoffs.” The soon-to-be-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. even tweeted recently to wait until “a pass for the lead is considered a first down.”

Even though it sounds like a joke, it doesn’t seem too off base.

After a decade in the Cup Series, the sanctioning body eventually extended its “playoff” formats to all of its top-three national touring series. That means the second-tier Xfinity Series and third-tier Camping World Truck Series now have the same knockout-style elimination bracket as the Cup Series does, although the format differs slightly for each series.

Advertisement

Part of where the formats differ is in their start dates, which means only the Cup Series playoffs will start this weekend. For the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, this weekend’s races will be drivers’ last chances to make it into the playoffs and be able to race for the title.

But before we get to the playoffs, you may need a refresher on how NASCAR in general works this year.

NASCAR For The 2017 Race Season

After a format overhaul just a few years ago, NASCAR redid the points system and individual race formats for 2017. Under the new rules, races in all three of NASCAR’s top series would be broken up into three different “stages” with predetermined caution periods after the first two. The sanctioning body also introduced a new race flag: the green-and-white checkered flag, which signals the end of a stage.

Stages are more than just set break times to artificially bunch the field back up and send them back out again—the top-10 finishers in each stage get extra points toward the championship. Stage points work like this in NASCAR, as determined by the finishing order at the end of a stage:

  • First place: 10 regular points, one playoff point
  • Second place: Nine regular points
  • Third place: Eight regular points
  • Fourth place: Seven regular points

You get the idea. That goes all the way through the 10th-place driver at the end of the stage, who gets a single regular point for finishing there. Playoff points accumulated throughout the regular season only count for drivers who are in the playoffs, and become irrelevant for those not competing in them.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at playoff track Dover International Speedway. Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

That point system matters after the first and second stage, but the end of the third stage is the end of the race. And winning a race, hopefully, means more than crossing the line first on some other arbitrary lap. The driver who wins the race gets 40 regular points and five playoff points, while second place gets 35 regular points, third place gets 34, fourth place gets 33, and so on. Drivers who finish 36th through 40th each get one regular point.

Advertisement

A win also puts a driver in the playoffs, so long as the season doesn’t have more race winners than it does spots in the playoffs (that hasn’t been an issue yet) or NASCAR encumbers the win—effectively taking everything but the trophy away. Spots in the playoffs that aren’t determined by wins are filled by the regular-season points standings.

At the end of the regular season, the driver leading the standings gets an extra 15 playoff points. Second place in the standings gets 10 playoff points, third place gets eight, fourth gets seven, fifth gets six, and so on through 10th place.

Playoff points carry over into each round of the playoffs so longs as a driver stays in contention for the title, until Homestead-Miami Speedway. Nothing carries over to that race.

The Camping World Truck Series at playoff track Martinsville Speedway. Photo credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

The other notable change NASCAR made—midseason, naturally—was to its “overtime line.” Throwing out its green-white-checkered finish for overtime in 2016, the overtime line was an arbitrarily placed line at a different spot on each track. If a race in any series went past its scheduled distance, the “overtime” procedure consisted of two laps, a green-flag one and the race-ending white-flag lap. The line served as marking the race official, and meant that the next flag ended it—whether that flag be checkered or yellow.

The overtime line didn’t work well. It worked terribly, really. So, NASCAR finally wised up and changed it. The change probably didn’t address one of the worst parts of the rule, but at least it was something.

The Playoffs In All Three Series

Across all three series, some general rules are the same: Those special playoff points carry over throughout every round of the playoffs until the Homestead-Miami Speedway race, so long as a driver qualifies for the next round. Since NASCAR started the knockout format for the post-season, those special points only carried into the first round.

Advertisement

Now, they carry into every round, making it harder for the drivers with fewer points to catch up from the start.

Playoff cutoff races will differ for reach series, which makes things a bit hard to follow and keep up with. One series is finishing a playoff round one weekend, and another series is smack in the middle of one. It gets a bit confusing, but the schedule itself would have to be tampered with to make things otherwise.

The Xfinity Series at playoff track Charlotte Motor Speedway. Photo credit: Jerry Marklund/Getty Images

But on Homestead weekend, the remaining four drivers in each title race will be on a level playing ground (in a way, but that’s a discussion for another time). No points will carry over, and the driver who finishes the highest in that race—and that race alone—will win the championship.

Advertisement

A non-encumbered win in a round of the playoffs guarantees a free pass into the next round, but does not guarantee a pass into any round after that unless the driver wins again. To illustrate, here’s how things will go in each series:

  • First round: All playoff drivers will have their points totals reset to 2,000 plus the playoff points earned up until this point in the season. This makes sure that playoff drivers are far enough away in points from non-playoff drivers that they cannot mathematically catch up. (For example, the first non-playoff driver, Clint Bowyer, has 664 points at the end of the regular season.) A win in this round sends a driver straight into the second, and the rest of the spots are filled based on points.
  • Second round: Playoff drivers who make the second round will have their points reset to 3,000 plus playoff points. A win bumps a driver straight to the next round, and the rest of the spots are filled by points.
  • Third round: Playoff drivers still in contention will have their points reset to 4,000, plus playoff points for drivers in the Cup Series. This is the final, single-race round for the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. No playoff points will carry over, and the highest finisher of the four remaining drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway will win the title. In the Cup Series, a win in this round puts a driver in the single-race playoff at Homestead. The rest of the spots will be filled by points.
  • Fourth round (only relevant to the Cup Series): The remaining four drivers going to Homestead-Miami Speedway will have their points reset to 5,000, with no playoff points added. This is the final, single race round and the highest finisher of the four remaining drivers will win.

The points per race and stage stay the same as the regular season during the playoffs, only playoff points won’t matter for drivers who aren’t in contention for the title.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at playoff track Texas Motor Speedway. Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

NASCAR told Jalopnik that drivers eliminated from the playoffs will have their points reset to 2,000, meaning all eliminated playoff drivers will only compete with other eliminated playoff drivers for where they finish in the standings. But the rest of the points reset is tricky.

Advertisement

Let’s say Martin Truex Jr., the current points leader, gets eliminated sometime in the playoffs—the third round, we’ll say. He’s starting the playoffs with 2,053 points after the reset, which is the 2,000 base points plus his 53 playoff points earned during the regular season.

NASCAR described making the playoffs—and subsequent rounds—as “cashing in” on playoff points earned in the regular season and during each round. So, Truex cashed in his 53, and NASCAR said that converts them into regular points.

If he’s eliminated in round three, the 4,000-point round, he’ll be reset to 2,000 regular points plus all of the regular and playoff-turned-regular points earned in the first two rounds. Truex’s playoff points from the third round won’t convert into regular points because he didn’t “cash them in,” but he’ll get all of the regular points he scored added to his reset.

Advertisement

Take a breath, grab some water, read it again if you have to. It’ll make sense after a few tries, we promise.

The Playoffs In The Camping World Truck Series

  • Number of drivers: Eight in the first round, six in the second round, four in the third round
  • Number of races: Seven
  • Races in each round: New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway (first round), Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway (second round), Homestead-Miami Speedway (third round)
  • Special rules: Cup Series drivers with more than five years of full-time experience at that level are barred from competing in the final eight rounds of the season, which includes the regular-season finale and the seven races in the playoffs.

The playoffs in the Truck Series will start at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, when the Cup Series is already well into its first round. Chicagoland Speedway still serves as a regular-season race in the trucks, and the regular-season point standings after Friday night’s race there will determine who gets extra playoff points.

Advertisement

The three rounds in the Truck Series will have two three-race rounds and a final shootout at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all of which Cup Series drivers with more than five years of experience full time at the top level are not allowed to compete in. That means Cup Series drivers who meet that criteria will not race from this weekend, at Chicagoland Speedway, forward.

That, friends, is so that we don’t watch a Cup driver win every single race and then have a series regular who finished fifth every weekend win the title.

The Playoffs In The Xfinity Series

  • Number of drivers: 12 in the first round, eight in the second round, four in the third round
  • Number of races: Seven
  • Races in each round: Kentucky Speedway, Dover International Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway (first round), Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway (second round), Homestead-Miami Speedway (third round)
  • Special rules: Cup Series drivers with more than five years of full-time experience at that level are barred from competing in the final eight rounds of the season, which includes the regular-season finale and the seven races in the playoffs.

Just like in the trucks, the Xfinity Series’ Chicagoland Speedway race Saturday is still part of the regular season. No Cup Series drivers with more than five years of full-time experience at the top level will be able to compete in it, and the same goes for all of the races from this point forward in the Xfinity Series. The standings after Saturday’s race will determine who gets extra points, and how many, going into the playoffs.

Advertisement

Like the trucks, the Xfinity Series will have three playoff rounds—two three-race rounds and one race to decide it all. Four of the 12 drivers will be eliminated after the first round, and then another four will be out after the second to make it a four-person fight for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The Playoffs In The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

  • Number of drivers: 16 in the first round, 12 in the second round, eight in the third round, four in fourth round
  • Number of races: 10
  • Races in each round: Chicagoland Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Dover International Speedway (first round), Charlotte Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas Speedway (second round), Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway (third round), Homestead-Miami Speedway (fourth round)

The Cup Series is the only one that’ll have four playoff rounds, mainly because the post-season in this series has been 10 races since it began in 2004. The playoffs start at Chicagoland Speedway, and each of the first three rounds will have three races apiece. Four drivers get eliminated after each, leaving four for the final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher there wins.

Advertisement

Win and you’re in, as NASCAR likes to say—even if it doesn’t always produce the champion you’d expect at the end of the season.