Winning a championship in any sport has always been the true measuring stick of greatness. I mean, when we discuss the Mount Rushmore of any league, the first criteria is always, how many championships has he or she won?
Well, NASCAR is the same. But, to what degree is greatness defined now? Championships have always been it, with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles always being the measuring stick.
Now, we’re in a different era though. Since 2014, NASCAR’s champion wasn’t crowed based off points. Yes, the first 35 races run during a season saw points being the reason the Championship 4 was formed, but it wasn’t the end all be all in determining a champion.
Whoever finished ahead of the other three Championship 4 drivers in the season finale won the title. It had nothing to do with the first 35 races. It had nothing to do with stage points for that race. It had everything to do with crossing the finish line ahead of the other three participants.
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Denny Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.
“Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it. Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”
Just do a quick look at who’s in the Championship 4 and who’s not. Kevin Harvick won nine races in the regular season and would have won a title during any other season for any other NASCAR era. Except for this one. He’s not racing for a championship on Sunday despite accumulating more points than anyone else in the 35 races run so far.
“Winning a championship today isn’t how Earnhardt or Petty did it,” said Harvick to me before the playoffs even started. “I think it’s a much different style of winning a championship than what it used to be.
“When you look at the point standings from this year, you see why the playoffs were put into effect in trying to make sure that we had an intriguing 10 weeks of racing as we went toward the end of the year.
“It’s very difficult to get yourself to the last race of the season and be one of those four cars and trying to be able to race for let alone win a championship.
“It’s very difficult to put yourself in that position and once you get there be able to put everything together against the other three guys on one particular day, especially when it’s been at the same race track (Homestead-Miami Speedway) every season that we’ve gone about it this way.”
Denny Hamlin’s crew chief in Chris Gabehart agrees.
“It’s like Harvick said, it’s a very different world in how we crown our champions today, full of a lot of exciting racing, no doubt about it,” Gabehart said. “You got to tune into the very last lap of the NASCAR season to know how it’s all going to play out.
“The reality is we have to go out and run another race. It’s really that simple. It just is that the championship is at the end of this one.”
The playoffs in NASCAR, like they are in stick and ball sports, are nothing like the regular season anymore.
Yes, a race win gets you to the next round, and yes points can still get you by, but like the other sports, you damn near have to be perfect to win this championship.
Since 2004, the year that the playoff format was first added to NASCAR, only three drivers have won a championship more than once — Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch. That’s it. That’s the list. It will remain that way because Johnson and Busch didn’t make it to Phoenix this weekend with championship aspirations anymore and Stewart is retired.
Since this new format was adopted in 2014 though, Busch is the only driver to win the Cup more than once. In fact, in this new era of NASCAR racing, one could say that just getting to a Championship 4 should be as big of a stat like winning a championship.
You should be judged on that and have a similar weight for your merits for a Final Four as you would a championship. I mean, I get it a championship should hold the most weight, but look at the NCAA Tournament, it’s all about a Final Four. We talk about that a lot. How many Final Fours have you been to?
Same for NASCAR. I mean the elite teams in the NCAA have been to Final Fours. Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Connecticut, you name it, normally it’s the elite of the elite’s.
Especially more so now than ever before, winning in NASCAR is just so difficult. You have to be damn near perfect in the playoffs to even get a chance of getting to the Championship 4. That means being flawless on pit lane (no bad stops, no penalties), being aggressive on track, having a good starting spot, etc.
Harvick, was +42 entering the final race of the last round and didn’t make it to the final round despite 69 playoff points. Even he had to be perfect.
Same for basketball. In the NCAA tournament, it’s grown to be you can beat anybody on any given night. You have to be flawless. You can’t turn the ball over, miss free throws, lapses on defense, etc. Those that do, they have short lives in the Big Dance.
NASCAR gives you three shots per round, but one bad race can easily slip up your title chances very quickly. With racing being measured in a matter of tenths of a second now, you don’t have the luxury of many mulligans. Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, William Byron and others found out the hard way. While there will be upsets along the way, the big names like in the NCAA Tournament will still find their ways to the Final Round. The ones that do will do so on perfection.
How many drivers have we seen have a season to where they were outside of the top 10 of the overall points standings but they march deep into the playoffs? The consistency may not have been there but they won enough races at the right time to keep going.
I mean, all you have to do in the 26 race regular season is find victory lane at least once. If you can do that and stay in the top 30 of the points standings, you’re marching to the playoffs. Then, if you win at least one race in each of the first three rounds, you get to the Championship 4.
But, from the Round of 8 on, it’s where drivers say winning a title gets tense.
“It’s stressful, man,” said 2015 series champion Kyle Busch. “It’s not stressful until the round of 8 and the round of 8 is the ultimate pressure.
“Once you get here to Homestead though I feel like it reduces. It’s just about being in the Championship 4 and being eligible there and you know you’re racing against eight of the best of that time right then and there.
“So with this format being the way that it is, it definitely takes time off you probably a little bit, it’s pretty stressful, gives you some more gray hairs than you want — or the loss of hair there for that.”
I mean, look at how stressful it is to make the Championship 4, but the guys that do so are there for a reason. They think just making the Championship 4 should hold almost as much weight now as winning a championship.
The problem becoming of this format is, as Hamlin puts it, you get your Game 7 moment like to what happened to Harvick last weekend, but forget about the first eight innings at that.
His teammate Martin Truex Jr. agrees. While he won a title under this format (2017), he feels like winning a championship now has never been more difficult under this Championship 4 format.
“I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship),” Truex said on the topic. “I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.
“I think if you look at the elimination races and the stress, the amount of decisions that are made, the amount of laps that are raced, how many things in racing can happen to you. If you get to this level and have this much success, you don’t really believe in luck any more, you know? You can’t because if you do, then you’re relying on luck to get you where you want to go. It’s probably not going to work out consistently.
“So I think it’s very, very difficult to get here. I think the argument could be that final four appearances are very important. They’re looked at in some way that is more than, Well, the guy didn’t win the championship.”
Just think about it. Brad Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014), Busch (2015, 2019), Truex Jr. (2017) and Logano (2018) have all won championships over the last seven years but that has been their first and only for all but Busch. Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott are trying to join that list as they’re the only drivers in the Championship 4 to have never won a title.