Cup Series drivers fear likely rule changes might devalue their role in future playoffs

LAS VEGAS -- The dramatic part of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is the element of four drivers being eliminated from championship contention after each of the three-race rounds to set up a four-driver, best-finish-is-champion element to the season finale.

Drivers know every year includes a little bit of a roll of the dice. But they also know this year that they might have more control over their destiny than in 2019.

NASCAR is considering using a drafting package for a dozen or so races next year. The package, implemented for the NASCAR All-Star race, probably would make the field a little tighter and allow drivers to use the draft to slingshot to the lead.

The rules won't be finalized for another two weeks, but drivers seem resigned to the fact that if NASCAR goes to a higher downforce, lower horsepower package that many of their innate racing skills won't have as much an impact.

So that creates a little bit of urgency to the 2018 playoffs, which begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"Definitely there's a feel to it this is going to be one, if that rules package is implemented, this will be one of the last great playoffs," 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski said during playoff media day Thursday at the South Point Hotel and Casino.

Most drivers want their ability to pass to be dictated by making the car faster on its own and not needing the help of another driver in the draft.

"I'd like to win the last championship where a driver means something," Kyle Larson quipped. "We'll see what package they bring out or how often we have to run it.

"But it would be cool to win the championship this year when [the driver] would actually mean something. [But] I'm going to race hard whether it's this package or a package where we're going 20 miles an hour."

NASCAR would be quick to point out that Kevin Harvick won an all-star race that enjoyed positive fan reaction for the first time in several years and showed that no matter the package, the best drivers and best teams will shine.

"We ran the all-star package once and we ran up front and had a shot at winning until we got crashed," defending Cup champion Martin Truex Jr said. "I would assume there's probably going to be more of that next year. We're probably going to tear up a lot more cars when we run that package.

"As far as being competitive, a lot of it is team chemistry, how you work together, having the best guys and being able to build fast race cars and when you get to the race track, work together as a group."

The goal for NASCAR is to find a package where a driver doesn't win in a blowout.

"This year will certainly be much more about best team, best driver, best execution, best elite of everything," Aric Almirola said. "Next year you'll still have some elements of that but there will be a lot more unknown, a lot more surprises."

Some would say what's wrong with that? Last week at Indianapolis, the Xfinity Series teams had that package, and thanks in part to a caution that created a 1-lap dash to end the first stage, it was four-wide across the finish line for the stage win.

The whole championship system is designed to at least create intrigue and give dark horses a chance, and it can be argued that the drafting package just adds an additional element.

"If I was running it, that wouldn't be the package that I'd pick, but are we at a point where you can't not do anything?" Harvick said. "It's not my job to pick what we race.

"It's my job to figure out how to win and how to be part of my team to get us to that point. You just have to figure out how to make that happen."

That will be the attitude of seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who said there are certain tracks with long straightaways, such as Indianapolis, where the package would work, but he can't predict how it might impact the racing at a more typical 1.5-mile oval or trioval.

"It's counterintuitive to think less horsepower is the future and the aero situation that we're looking at putting on the cars -- I can talk myself into a lot of added excitement, then I can also say maybe it won't be," Johnson said.

"I'm just going to roll with it and see where it nets out. To see the willingness to make a change and try to create the best value for the fans, I do appreciate it. I might not always agree with the path it is going down, but there's a big effort to provide as much as we can for the fans."