The 2017 NASCAR playoffs are pivotal for the sport's present and future

Are we about to enter the most important 10 weeks in modern NASCAR history?

The fourth year of the Cup Series’ elimination playoff format begins Sunday in Chicago. Noting the playoffs are days away shouldn’t be necessary. But this is no normal time in NASCAR.

Over the past few days the sport has publicly met the potential that its two most recognizable drivers won’t be a part of the sport in 2018, seen its most legendary driver get into a war of words with a pork corporation and cause a mess itself with a disaster of an officiating performance in final race of the regular season.

And all of this is happening while the sport’s popularity continues to wane as the stage-racing format introduced before the 2017 season hasn’t produced immediate results in terms of viewers and fans in the grandstands.

It’s now up for NASCAR to get out of its own way over the next 10 weeks to avoid adding to the morass.

A big step in doing so may be the playoff changes NASCAR added with stage racing. Drivers who performed well during the regular season and earned bonus points for stage and race wins will get to carry those points through the first nine races of the playoffs.

The changes — the fifth different NASCAR playoff format in 14 years — are in the name of fairness. Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion and by far the best driver over the previous 26 races, has nearly a full race’s worth of bonus points. In three three-race rounds, those points should be enough to get Truex to the championship race at Homestead. Or to the third round at the very least.

Consider his advantage NASCAR’s version of the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye for a 15-1 team in the NFL playoffs. There’s no guarantee of a Super Bowl, but the odds are looking good.

Previously, bonus points only lasted for the first round. The second and third rounds were heads-up battles that led to the surprise eliminations of championship favorites and, in 2014, led to the championship race appearance of a driver without any wins.

Truex would’ve had five more bonus points if it wasn’t for a debatable caution call with three laps to go Saturday night at Richmond. The caution, which came after a yellow for “smoke” earlier in the race and an incident with an ambulance blocking the entrance to pit road that left multiple cars damaged, was for a car 16 laps down brushing the wall.

Truex was leading at the time of the caution. After the caution, his car was in a crumpled, smoldering heap on the final lap.

Monday, a NASCAR executive admitted that it was a “rough night” for its officiating. A week earlier, Truex had hit the wall at Darlington while racing for the lead with Hamlin — the man who sent him to the wall at Richmond. There was no caution at Darlington.

“They deemed it just like what happens when a driver has a bad race – hey, they’re moving on to the next race,” Denny Hamlin said Wednesday. “Short of, like, an NBA ref tripping a player, then that player getting injured, I don’t know how it relates. It was just bizarre to me. I feel like, I don’t know, it’s frustrating because there should be one constant in NASCAR, and that’s how the races are called and officiated.”

The constant with NASCAR officiating, however, has been its inconsistency. With stage racing adding two planned cautions to races, NASCAR has been more hesitant to throw cautions for “debris” in 2017.

But anyone who’s watched NASCAR for an extended period of time knows it’s a matter of time for the next head-scratching officiating decision to happen. The debacle at Richmond came less than two months after NASCAR’s curious officiating at Indianapolis and the subsequent dissolution of the sport’s “Overtime Line.”

NASCAR can’t afford to have shoddy officiating pop up in the playoffs. And guess what? It has over the past two seasons. The Talladega restart calamity of 2015 led to the implementation of the overtime line and the sanctioning body had to rescind inspection penalties after the first race of the playoffs last year after it realized that Truex, the race winner, wouldn’t be affected the say way Jimmie Johnson would.

Can the Cup Series get through 10 weeks where the racing and not the rules or officiating is the dominant topic? The sport’s credibility is at stake.

As an aside to the ambulance that marred Saturday night’s race, drivers remarked Wednesday at playoff media day about the incompetence of ambulance drivers throughout the season. For all the superficial things NASCAR screws up — the championship trophy features incorrect designs for the Cup Series’ two road courses — it’s even more baffling that the biggest racing series in North America isn’t properly training its safety personnel regarding track logistics.

After winning his seventh title in 2016, Johnson is back in the playoffs and aiming to break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most titles in NASCAR history. Tuesday, Petty’s team lost longtime sponsor Smithfield and the 200-time winner said the company had backed out of a handshake deal to stay with the team in 2018.

Petty’s frustration was understandable. In an environment where securing sponsorship is harder than figuring out President Trump’s real net worth, Petty knows he won’t be able to find a company to fill the void Smithfield is leaving behind. Smithfield, meanwhile, lambasted Petty’s team’s ability to be competitive over the last few seasons and painted the 80-year-old’s company as one without a clear plan to get better.

Smithfield will be a sponsor at Stewart-Haas Racing next season for a driver and car to be determined. Not long after the company’s arrival was public, Danica Patrick said the Smithfield-SHR deal meant she was leaving the team at the end of the season.

Patrick has said numerous times that she doesn’t want to race to just be a field filler and it’s hard to see where she wouldn’t be one if she found a team and kept driving in 2018. After her Tuesday announcement, it’s easy to see a NASCAR future without both Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring at the end of the season.

If Johnson’s the third-most recognizable driver in NASCAR, it’s anyone’s guess who No. 4 is on the list.

“I think obviously you want to see the best-case scenario surround the sport, but I can tell you being in the position that I was in in 2001 with Dale Earnhardt that if something was going to be catastrophic for the sport at that particular point, it could have been catastrophic in a lot of different ways,” Kevin Harvick said Wednesday when asked about a scenario without Earnhardt and Patrick. “It already was catastrophic, and it went through a big transition of what do the Earnhardt fans do?  What do they think about the sport?  And I don’t think this scenario is as big as that scenario, obviously. Sports in general has a funny way of absorbing everything and moving on.”

But NASCAR was in a far better position when Earnhardt died in 2001 than it is now. Harvick won just weeks after Earnhardt’s death, Earnhardt Jr. was positioned to assume his father’s fans and Jeff Gordon won his fourth (and final) title at the end of the season.

There’s no obvious candidate for Junior’s fans to flock towards. Chase Elliott inheriting both Gordon and Junior’s fans seems a bit much.

Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500 came in the first race of a revolutionary television contract with Fox and NBC. The two networks, seeing the popularity growth of NASCAR, invested heavily in the sport and were rewarded with television ratings that continued to grow in the years after the Intimidator died.

The opposite is happening currently. Television ratings for the Sept. 3 race at Darlington were half of what they were just two years ago. Per Sports Media Watch, it was the least-watched race at the track since “at least” 1998.

The core fanbase of the last 20 years is aging and dwindling. An eighth title for Johnson would go a long way to giving NASCAR some short-term mainstream appeal, but he’s over 40 and probably won’t be racing for 10 more years.

While NASCAR needs a short-term boost — or at least a plateau — it’s also in dire need of a long-term vision and maybe even a new title sponsor. Monster’s deal to sponsor the Cup Series is only guaranteed through 2018.

A compelling playoff run that’s all about the characters on the track and not about the ones making and enforcing the rules isn’t going to be a panacea. But it’s sure as hell better than a crescendo that leaves the sport’s remaining fans wondering just how much longer they can put up with the ridiculousness.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!