NASCAR Playoffs 101: What you need to know

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018 and updated for the 2020 season. This is subject to change depending on any developments and schedule adjustments related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The structure

For all three NASCAR national series, there are a series of eliminations as the NASCAR Playoffs progress. This culminates in the series finales at Phoenix Raceway, where the Championship 4 drivers race “straight-up” for the title — the first to cross the line of the four championship-eligible drivers is crowned the champion. This year’s championship weekend is scheduled to be in Phoenix for the first time. Previously, Homestead-Miami Speedway had been the track to host the final race weekend since 2002.

How they get here:
“Win and you’re in.” Championship-eligible drivers who won a race during the regular season, attempted to qualify for all regular-season races and met a minimum points position (NASCAR Cup Series: top 30; NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series: top 20) qualify for the playoffs.

If there are fewer unique race winners than open spots in the playoffs, the remaining positions are filled based on regular-season points.

Note: Both Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman have received a waiver for the NASCAR Playoffs. Even though they have not attempted to qualify for every race in the NASCAR Cup Series, they are eligible to compete for a championship this year.

Round-by-round

NASCAR Cup Series
– 16 drivers, four rounds
– Playoffs scheduled to begin at Darlington Raceway (Sept. 6)
– Scheduled cutoff races, where four drivers are eliminated from the playoffs: Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Martinsville Speedway

NASCAR Xfinity Series
– 12 drivers, three rounds
– Playoffs scheduled to begin at Bristol Motor Speedway (Sept. 18)
– Scheduled cutoff races, where four drivers are eliminated from the playoffs: Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and Martinsville Speedway

NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series
– 10 drivers, three rounds
– Playoffs scheduled to begin at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Aug. 21)
– Scheduled cutoff races: Bristol Motor Speedway (two drivers eliminated) and Martinsville Speedway (four drivers eliminated)

The points

Throughout the regular season, drivers in all three national series earn playoff points to be used in the postseason. The playoff points procedure is uniform across all three national series and continues in the playoffs for drivers who remain in contention.

Ways drivers earn playoff points:
– Win Stage 1 or Stage 2 in a race: 1 playoff point (point awarded per stage win)
– Win a race: 5 playoff points
– Win the regular-season championship: 15 playoff points

Second place in the final regular-season standings earns 10 playoff points, third place receives eight points, and the points awarded decline to one point for 10th (fourth = seven points, fifth = six points, etc.).

Championship-contending drivers can accumulate additional playoff points throughout the playoffs via stage and race wins and may use all the playoff points they earn, from both the regular season and the playoffs, to advance all the way up to the Championship 4.

Playoff points are added to a championship-contending driver’s reset points total at the start of every round of the NASCAR Playoffs until they are eliminated from championship contention.

If a driver accumulates playoff points during the regular season but does not qualify for the playoffs, their playoff points are eliminated from the scoreboard.

At Phoenix Raceway, playoff points are off the table and the Championship 4 drivers enter the “winner-take-all” race on equal ground.

For example: Last year in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, Kyle Busch won the regular-season championship (15 playoff points), four races (20 total playoff points) and 10 stages (10 playoff points). Therefore, he had 45 playoff points and, when the point totals reset to 2,000 for every playoff driver, started the postseason with 2,045 points — already 45 points ahead of the 15th and 16th seeds, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman.