How NASCAR Playoffs Work – Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

The NASCAR Playoffs are a relatively concept in the sport, as they have only existed in one form or another since 2004. Over the years, several changes have been made to the system, and some changes are quite complicated. Therefore, you may wonder how the NASCAR Playoffs work. 

The NASCAR Playoffs start with the 16 drivers who either won the regular season championship, won a race, or finished in the top 16 in points. Every three weeks, four drivers are eliminated. In the final week of the season, four drivers remain, and the highest finisher wins the NASCAR Cup. 

Below, we will expand on how the NASCAR Playoffs work, before we reveal why NASCAR put a playoff system in place. We will also explain how previous playoff systems worked in comparison to the current system, before we discuss what the fans like and dislike about the playoff system. 

6 NASCAR cars racing two wide on the straight at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania at the 2019 Gander RV 400 with fans in the background, How NASCAR Playoffs Work

NASCAR Playoffs Explained

  • The top 16 drivers in points from NASCAR’s 26-race regular season are seeded based on their number of wins and playoff points accrued through the first 26 races
  • If fewer than 16 drivers won a race, the remainder of the 16 driver playoff field is determined by where they stand in points at the end of the regular season
  • Playoff points are awarded during the regular season for winning either the race or a stage, and if the driver finished in the top 10 of the regular season standings
  • The playoffs are divided into four rounds: Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8, and the Championship Four
  • The Rounds of 16, 12, and 8 are made up of 3 races each, and the Championship Four Race comprises only the season finale
  • At the end of each round, there is a cutoff, so the top 12 in points advance to the Round of 12
  • However, someone below the cutoff can advance to the next round if they win a race during the Round of 16, taking the place of someone initially above the cutoff
  • The same format explained above applies for the Round of 12 and the Round of 8
  • Points reset following each round, meaning the playoff seeding in the Round of 12 may not be the same as the Round of 16, and the same goes for the Round of 8
  • The drivers who earn a spot into the Championship Four enter with an equal number of points
  • The Championship Four is a free for all, and whichever driver in the Championship Four finishes in the highest position (as there are still up to 40 cars on track) wins the NASCAR Cup Series Championship

The NASCAR Playoffs Points System

  • Each driver enters the Round of 16 with 2,000 points, plus any bonus points they received during the regular season
  • Drivers who make the Round of 12 start with 3,000 points, plus playoff points for winning a race or a stage in the Round of 16 and the regular season
  • The Round of 8 resets advancing drivers’ points totals to 4,000 points, plus playoff points earned in the regular season, Round of 16, and Round of 12
  • The Championship 4 gets their points total reset to 5,000 points, and no playoff points are added to the total

When Did NASCAR Start Using The Playoff System?

NASCAR started using some form of playoff system in 2004, after the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company entered its final season of NASCAR sponsorship in 2003. Tobacco sponsors across the sporting landscape were being phased out, meaning the championship trophy called the Winston Cup was about to be replaced. Upon gaining sponsorship from Nextel, we saw several changes to the NASCAR scene. 

One of those changes occurred in 2004, when NASCAR adopted their first playoff system called the Chase for the Nextel Cup. This system differed from the one used in today’s NASCAR, as only the top ten drivers in points made the cut. The playoff system saw several changes through the years. 

Why Does NASCAR Have Playoffs?

NASCAR has playoffs to make the racing more exciting at the final stages of the season. It is largely thought to have been introduced as a result of Matt Kenseth’s Cup win in 2003, when he won just one race, with the playoffs being designed to reward drivers that win more races during the season.

In 2003, Matt Kenseth dominated the NASCAR scene, but not in the way you would think. He won just one race that season, the Spring Race at Las Vegas, and went winless the rest of the way. However, he ended the season with 25 top ten finishes and 11 top fives. 

His consistent finishes near the top led Kenseth to securing the final Winston Cup Championship following the Fall Race at the Rockingham Speedway. Therefore, there was really no reason to run the final race at Homestead-Miami the following week, where Kenseth finished in last place, his worst of the season, yet he still captured the Winston Cup. 

This prompted NASCAR to make a switch, coinciding with the introduction of the new Nextel Cup. NASCAR wanted its sport to be watchable every week of the season, and that included the final races. Enter the Chase for the Nextel Cup, which pitted the top ten drivers plus any driver whose points total landed within 400 of the points leader. 

Because of the way Kenseth won the championship, some in NASCAR spheres have dubbed this the Matt Kenseth Rule. One misconception, however, is that NASCAR implemented the Chase because of the way Kenseth won the championship. NASCAR reported they were thinking of making changes since 2000, so Kenseth’s championship was more like the final straw.  

NASCAR Wanted To Put More Emphasis On Wins 

While Kenseth won the championship by winning just one race, another driver, Ryan Newman, finished sixth in the standings that year, but won eight races. NASCAR wanted to reward those who won more races, something that, since 2004, has gained even more emphasis when they made further adjustments to the playoff system. 

This also prompted further changes to the points system. NASCAR awarded 175 points to the winner and 170 to the driver who finished in second from 1975 to 2003. In 2004, they bumped the winner’s points total up to 180, and in 2007, they further increased this total to 185 points, increasing the margin between first and second to a total of 15 points. 

How Many Drivers Make The NASCAR Playoffs?

16 drivers make the NASCAR playoffs, and this has been the case since 2014. Since then, any driver who wins a race receives a near-automatic spot in the playoffs. However, if more than 16 drivers win races, the drivers with the most wins and those with one win and the most points make the playoffs.

Ordinarily, 16 different drivers do not win races in the regular season, and so NASCAR fills the remaining playoff spots based on winless drivers with the highest points totals. However, 16 drivers won races in the regular season in 2022, but just 15 made the playoffs since an injured Kurt Busch was forced to withdraw his eligibility, giving Ryan Blaney a spot in the playoffs. 

The fact that every driver except one that made the 2022 playoffs won a race helps solidify the massive culture change NASCAR had been working on attaining since 2004. During the old Winston Cup seasons, the most consistent drivers found themselves battling for the championship, and it was possible to win the championship without winning a single race

NOTE: It’s still technically possible to win the championship without winning a race, but it’s extremely unlikely thanks to the playoff system

Playoffs Are Better For Smaller Teams

Under the current playoff system, a driver for a smaller team that is not always competitive can get a ticket into the playoffs by winning a race. This occurred in 2021, when Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500. McDowell, who through 2022 has just one career win and 28 top tens in 411 races, finished 16th in the standings, a career high for the longtime driver. 

Although McDowell finished last among all drivers who qualified for the NASCAR playoffs, he was still given a fair chance to compete for the championship. And these drivers, theoretically, are only three wins away from winning the NASCAR Cup.

If they win a race in the Round of 16, Round of 12, and Round of 8, they will end up in the Championship Four regardless of how they fare in the other six races leading to the season finale. Once in the Championship Four, they only need to log the highest finish among the other three challengers to win the NASCAR Cup. 

NOTE:  It’s worth mentioning again that each of the playoff races – including the Championship Four – still feature a full 40-car field, but it’s simply that only the top 16, 12, 8 or 4 are racing for points

What Is The NASCAR Playoff Bubble?

The NASCAR playoff bubble refers to drivers who, during the final races of the regular season, are on the cusp of getting into the playoffs. These drivers are usually those that haven’t yet won a race but are the highest point scorers during the regular season.

Also Used In The Playoffs

You will also see the bubble used during the Round of 16, the Round of 12, and the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Playoffs. The four drivers above and below the cutoff point are on the bubble in the Round of 16 and the Round of 12. In the Round of 8, drivers who have not won their way into the Championship Four are on the bubble, as are those under the cutoff point. 

The best way to get off the bubble in the NASCAR Playoffs is to win a race. Suppose we are in Race 2 in the Round of 16. We have eight drivers on the bubble, but if the driver currently in 16th place wins Race 2, they will advance to the next round automatically. 

This would push a driver previously in eighth place in the standings (and originally ‘safe’) on the bubble for Race 3 in the Round of 16, as they would find themselves in the group of four drivers just over the cutoff line and therefore under pressure by those around them in the standings. 

How Do Drivers Qualify For The NASCAR Playoffs?

NASCAR drivers qualify for the playoffs by winning a race in the regular season or by finishing with the most points of the winless drivers if there were fewer than 16 winners that season. If there are more than 16 winners, drivers with the most wins and most points qualify for the playoffs.

If you win, you are in, unless there are more than 16 different winners. Suppose 19 drivers win at least one race. In this scenario, drivers who have won the most races will get into the playoffs, but if seven drivers each won two races, and the remaining 12 won just one race, the 9 drivers with the highest points totals of those 12 are the ones that qualify. 

Therefore, the best way to guarantee entry into the NASCAR Playoffs is to win two races. Another way to qualify is to win the regular season points championship. If a driver is leading in the points standings after the summer Daytona race, the regular season finale, and even if they did not win a race, they will still earn a playoff spot even if 16 other drivers won a race. 

How Do NASCAR Playoff Points Work?

NASCAR Playoff points are earned during the 26-race regular season. Each regular season race has 7 playoff points up for grabs (8 at the Coca-Cola 600). Every time a driver wins a race in the regular season, they earn 5 playoff points, with each first or second stage win offering 1 playoff point.

This isn’t to be confused with the 10 bonus points drivers also earn for winning the stage. These points go toward the regular season championship, and just one point goes toward the playoffs for the winner of the first and second stages (and third stage at the Coca-Cola 600). Drivers who finish in the top 10 in NASCAR’s regular season standings also receive playoff points. 

NASCAR Playoff Points For Regular Season Positions

PositionPlayoff Points

Chase Elliott, who won the 2022 regular season, won 40 playoff points. 20 of those points came from his four wins, and another five came from stage wins. He got 15 more points for finishing in first place in the regular season. So, when the points reset to 2,000 for all drivers who made the Round of 16, Elliott started in the lead with 2,040 points. 


• 16 drivers progress to the NASCAR Playoffs

• The easiest way to get in is to win more than one race in the regular season

• Playoff points are awarded for race and stage wins

• These points are added on to drivers’ totals when they reset to 2,000 at the start of the playoffs

NASCAR Playoff Format Explained

The NASCAR playoff format is similar to that used in the MLB, NHL, and NBA, as the three rounds comprise a series of races, just as the playoff rounds in these sports leagues comprise a series of games. The main difference is that at least half of the playoff-eligible drivers will advance to the next round of the playoffs, as opposed to half or fewer than half of the teams in the MLB, NBA, and NHL.

In the Round of 16, all 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs have three races to accumulate either a win or enough points to advance to the Round of 12. The remaining 12 drivers will have an additional three races to gain enough points or win to be one of eight drivers to advance to the Round of 8, which comprises another three races. 

The four drivers who earn the highest number of points or win a race will advance to the Championship Four. The driver who finishes highest in this race will win the NASCAR Cup. Drivers’ points totals are reset at the start of each playoff round. The table below illustrates each playoff round and the corresponding number of points the drivers start with. 

Starting Points Totals In The NASCAR Playoffs

RoundPoints Drivers Start WithPlayoff Points Carried Over
Round Of 162,000Regular Season
Round Of 123,000Regular Season, Round of 16
Round Of 84,000Regular Season, Round of 16, Round of 12
Championship Four5,000 pointsNone

If a driver earns a spot in the Round of 12 and they won a race plus two stages in the Round of 12, they would have their points reset to 3,000 at the start of the Round of 8, plus their seven playoff points (five from the race win, two from the stage wins), giving them 3,007 points

If the driver also accumulated 30 playoff points in the regular season through where they finished in the standings, winning races, and winning stages, they would begin the Round of 12 with 3,037 points

NASCAR Playoff Format From 2004-2010

When NASCAR first introduced the Chase for the Nextel Cup, the top 10 drivers and those 400 points or fewer behind the leader earned a spot in the playoffs. The driver in first place was awarded 5,050 points, and the remaining drivers’ points totals came in increments of five. So, second place got 5,045 points, third place got 5,040, and so on. 

There were no rounds during the initial Chase for the Cup. Instead, the driver with the highest points total after the final 10 races was awarded the Nextel Cup. In 2007, NASCAR expanded the playoff format to 12 drivers, and this number was capped at 12, meaning even if a driver still sat within 400 points of the leader, they did not make the cut. 

Every driver received 5,000 points, and they received 10 bonus points for each race they won. This was yet another shift in the playoffs that rewarded drivers who won races. Jimmie Johnson won the championship that season, and his six regular season wins gave him 5,060 points to start the Chase. Jeff Gordon, who finished second, started the Chase with 5,040 points. 

NASCAR Playoff Changes In 2011

In 2011, drivers that finished in the top 10 in points during the 26-race regular season got a ticket into the Chase. The final two spots were taken by the two drivers, known as wildcards, who won the most races among drivers that did not finish in the top 10 in points. These drivers also had to finish the regular season ranked between 11th and 20th in points. 

The drivers who finished in the top 10 in points received three bonus points for each regular season win. The other two drivers received no bonus points. Every driver who qualified for the Chase had their points total reset to 2,000 before receiving their bonus points, if applicable. Drivers also earned three bonus points if they won a race during the Chase. 

2013 NASCAR Playoff Changes

In 2013, Clint Bowyer spun late in the regular season finale that took place at Richmond that season. This spin gained notoriety, as many in the NASCAR world believed Bowyer spun on purpose so his teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, Martin Truex Jr, could clinch the final playoff spot. 

Brian Vickers was driving the third car for Waltrip, and his spotter ordered him to pit when the race restarted. When Vickers pitted, race leader Ryan Newman had to go to the back of the pitting cycle. Newman lost several positions and ultimately finished third, tying him with Truex Jr in both wins and points. However, Truex won the tiebreaker, as he had more top five finishes. 

NASCAR sanctioned Michael Waltrip Racing, and among the sanctions, they knocked 50 regular season points from Bowyer, Vickers, and Truex. This took Truex out of playoff contention, and Newman secured the last playoff spot. 

Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing also found themselves in trouble, as radio communication evidence showed that David Gilliland intentionally gave up a spot to ensure Joey Logano clinched a playoff spot. This move put Logano into the top 10 in points, and bumped Jeff Gordon out of the top 10. 

Because of Bowyer’s spin, the yellow flag dropped and froze the field. NASCAR determined that had the spin not occurred, Gordon would have clinched the final spot by finishing ahead of Logano, and Logano would have fallen out of wildcard contention had Newman won. This incident prompted NASCAR to, for 2013, expand the field to 13 drivers. 

NASCAR Playoff Format From 2014-Present

In 2014, the NASCAR Playoffs as we know them today materialized, as they expanded the playoff field to 16 drivers. The one change that we saw in 2014 that no longer exists today is that NASCAR named its three rounds the Challenger Round (Round of 16), the Contender Round (Round of 12), and the Eliminator Round (Round of 8). 

The last major change came in 2017 when NASCAR adopted stage racing. This was the season when NASCAR added playoff points for stage and race wins. The bonus points for drivers who finished in the top 10 of the regular season standings were also added in 2017. 

Which NASCAR Tracks Host Playoff Races?

Playoff RoundTrackType Of Track
Round of 16DarlingtonIntermediate Oval
Round of 16KansasIntermediate Oval
Round of 16BristolShort Track
Round of 12Texas Intermediate Oval
Round of 12TalladegaSuperspeedway
Round of 12Charlotte RovalRoad Course
Round of 8Las VegasIntermediate Oval
Round of 8Homestead-MiamiIntermediate Oval
Round of 8MartinsvilleShort Track
Championship FourPhoenix Intermediate Oval

The NASCAR Playoffs are supposed to be the most challenging time of the season, so there is a solid mixture of intermediate ovals, a road course, a superspeedway, two short tracks, and a Crown Jewel Race to kick things off. 

No Daytona?

As NASCAR’s most popular track, you may be shocked to find that Daytona International Speedway is not a playoff track. Daytona hosts two races per season, the Daytona 500 and a 400 mile (644 km) summer race. The Daytona summer race takes place at night and serves as the regular season finale, which determines the Regular Season Champion. 

Therefore, NASCAR’s regular season ends at the same track in late August where it began in mid-February: Daytona International Speedway. 

Do NASCAR Fans Like The Playoff Format?

NASCAR fans’ take on the playoff format is mixed. Some fans like the playoff format as it already is. Other fans either want NASCAR to ditch the playoff system altogether, or to further improve the current format. The playoff format and stage racing are two polarizing aspects of the sport.

Some gripes about the current system is that many NASCAR fans feel the best driver overall should win the NASCAR Championship. Under the current playoff format, a driver could theoretically win the first 35 races of the season (that would be something), but if they finish fourth among the Championship Four in the final race, they finish in fourth place overall when they were clearly the most dominant driver

Other fans don’t like the fact that another driver could still enter the playoffs without winning a race if there are fewer than 16 winners in the regular season. Suppose a driver has limited success during the regular season, yet they start to win during the playoffs, they can take the NASCAR Cup title by peaking at the right time. 

It Wasn’t Perfect In The Past Either

Fans who like the playoffs will respond that the old system still held the same issues. Matt Kenseth’s win in 2003 showed that drivers who don’t win often in a season could still win the title. And Ryan Newman, who won eight races that year, led the field in wins, but he also suffered through his fair share of poor finishes. Newman was the most dominant, but did not win the championship. 

Overall, the playoff system does a reasonable job of keeping the racing exciting until the end of the season. However, we may see yet more changes made to this controversial part of the sport in the future.

Final Thoughts

The NASCAR Playoffs have seen numerous changes since their inception in 2004. They now comprise four rounds, with the first three rounds consisting of three races, while the final round is a one race free for all. Fans have had mixed opinions on the NASCAR Playoffs, with some supporting them while others would just like to see the most consistent driver win.