NASCAR Race Weekend Central
Kevin Harvick while being interviewed at Championship 4 Media Day at The Miami Beach EDITION on Thursday, November 15, 2018. (Photo/Davey Segal)

Did You Notice?: NASCAR Parity Producing a Tiresome Championship 4?

Did You Notice? … The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 could be an exact replica of 2018? Two of last year’s drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, have already qualified by winning in this year’s Round of 8. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, meanwhile, hold at least a 20-point edge over their closest competitors heading to this weekend’s cutoff event (Nov. 10) at ISM Raceway.

That’s a tough deficit to close without some sort of catastrophe or someone winning to steal an automatic bid. But the quartet of Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have just one victory in Phoenix between them – and that came way back in 2012 (Hamlin). Considering Busch has won the last two races here, he feels a safe bet despite an inconsistent 2019 playoff performance. Logano, the reigning MENCS champion, has won here as recently as fall 2016 and remains confident he’ll pull through.

If these standings hold, it would mark the first time in six years of NASCAR’s current format we had back-to-back identical Championship 4s. To be fair, there’s parity within that group as three teams are represented (Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske) along with two manufacturers (Ford and Toyota). And the four drivers represented couldn’t split the pie more equally: they’ve each earned one title apiece from 2014-2018.

Isn’t that the type of equality fans want in racing? Well, yes and no. On the plus side, this quartet has been a part of a special run for a sport that was once dominated by a select few. We’ve seen five different champions in five years: Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Jimmie Johnson (2016), Truex (2017) and Logano (2018). It’s the first time that’s happened in the 70-year history of the Cup Series and it’s a far cry from Johnson’s steamroll through the postseason field from 2006-2010.

But when it comes to drivers who qualify for the Championship 4, that’s a different story altogether. 20 eligible spots the past five years have been gobbled up by just a handful of drivers.

CUP SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP 4 APPEARANCES: 2014-2018

Kyle Busch 4

Kevin Harvick 4

Joey Logano 3

Martin Truex Jr. 3

Carl Edwards 1

Jeff Gordon 1

Denny Hamlin 1

Jimmie Johnson 1

Brad Keselowski 1

Ryan Newman 1

So far, that’s 14-of-20 spots (70 percent) for the quartet currently in position to make the championship yet again. It’s clear there’s a level of separation between them and the rest of the 40-car grid.

That applies to race teams as well.

CUP SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP 4 OWNER APPEARANCES: 2014-2018

Joe Gibbs Racing 6

Stewart-Haas Racing 4

Team Penske 4

Furniture Row Racing 3

Hendrick Motorsports 2

Richard Childress Racing 1

Surprise, surprise! The same three teams in position to make this year’s Championship 4 have also gobbled up 70 percent of the spots during the last five years. The next team trailing them on the list, FRR, no longer exists.

You certainly can’t fault the best teams and drivers for being on top of their game. But Logano, Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch are established names with a combined 59 years of Cup experience. They’ve been there, done that and their name recognition makes it hard to create compelling storylines outside of the NASCAR base that will watch the championship battle no matter what. Their presence is more likely to cause fatigue among race fans than create a furor to see them.

Compare that to the playoff runs we saw in the first few seasons of the title race. There was Newman’s shocking 2014 Cinderella run to the finale, giving Harvick a run for his money despite going winless on the year. (He famously roughed up Larson at ISM to earn a spot). The next year, Gordon positioned himself for a title in his last full-time season running the No. 24 Chevrolet. The NASCAR Hall of Famer’s quest produced the highest ratings and viewership for Homestead’s finale since 2005.

We’ve seen a marked decline in championship ratings since, dipping 43% from 2015 to last year as it lags behind some of the stick-and-ball sports. (Logano’s title earned a 2.5 in the Nielsens; by comparison, the World Series just finished up with an 8.1 average). And while NASCAR viewership has stabilized this year, the same faces at the front means a sudden ratings bump is unlikely.

A sport now built around playoff performance also hurts the ability of names like Blaney and Larson, and NASCAR Most Popular Driver Elliott to break through to a larger audience. This trio leading the 20-something group of next-generation stars has failed to crack the Championship 4. That means that despite a handful of victories among them, they get pushed toward irrelevance under this format. Just like an NFL Wild Card game, do you really remember who lost in a playoff semifinal?

You wonder without this type of postseason format, would Erik Jones‘ Southern 500 victory have had more of an impact? He’s been all but forgotten after a failed inspection at Richmond Raceway derailed his playoff hopes. Three wins in the season’s first 12 races from Keselowski are irrelevant in the face of a failure to advance; the same goes for Hamlin’s five victories if he falls flat at Phoenix.

Any type of playoff format has its own set of pluses and minuses. The postseason, in some shape or form, is here to stay. But the current standings showcase NASCAR’s seemingly stuck-in-place scenario of owners and drivers entrenched at the top.

What will cause the balance of power to shift? My thought is the Gen-7 rollout in 2021 but we’ll have to wait and see.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • Roger Penske’s bombshell purchase of IndyCar produces one obvious question: how can his teams compete in a series he owns? Penske was quick to point out in his response Tony George, whose family sold him the assets of the series along with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has owned race teams in the past. But George never had the degree of sustained success Penske has had through the years in this sport. His top driver, Josef Newgarden, is the reigning champion; teammate Simon Pagenaud won the 2019 Indy 500. How in the world will he avoid conflict of interest questions from new owners with that track record? If I were a prospective baseball owner, let’s say, would I want to spend millions to get in the game if the New York Yankees ran the entire league? There’s still more questions than answers for me after that press conference.
  • Sure, be mad at Bubba Wallace for spinning out to cause a caution at Texas Motor Speedway. But it’s hard to fault drivers for forcing NASCAR’s hand when officials differ week-to-week on what should trigger a yellow flag in the first place.
  • Based on what we’ve seen in the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff, it’s going to be one hell of a Cup Rookie of the Year race next year between Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell. Reddick may have wrecked out at Texas this past weekend but it still feels like he’s in position to get the last laugh at Homestead. We’ll see.
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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

31 comments

  1. Avatar

    The whole idea of a playoff in racing is preposterous. This ‘brilliant idea’ of the France family’s black sheep should disappear as completely as he has. It certainly didn’t draw a bigger crowd last week at Texas (see attendance for the F1 race), and I have heard that TV ratings shoot up as the season winds down. Wake up!

    • Avatar

      True. And one last giant turd left to us by Brian Z France is the current aero package. The damage that this one single man did to his own family’s golden goose is incredible.

  2. Avatar

    I didn’t notice, I was taken by all the excitement of the Chase and the Tx race, right here in all the latest comments…………..good Penske stepped in to give us a break in this weeks reporting……I’m waiting for “Can Chase still make the Chase.”…….NOT

  3. Avatar

    Can we just go back to a season long points system (one that actually makes sense) to determine an ACTUAL champion? If Logano lucks out and wins this convoluted POS championship, all credibility goes out the window, IMHO.

  4. Avatar

    Yes, Logano is above the line going into Phoenix, but last year he had a horrible race and only advanced because of his Martinsville victory that he does not have this year

  5. Avatar

    First off, a well written opinion piece. The best will always rise to the top. With no ‘draft’ regulating parity is possible in principle, but not in practice. BZF totally changed racing and not, in my opinion, in a good way. Indy Car and Formula 1 seem to be doing fine without trying to manufacture excitement. Jim France must feel like the mayor of Hiroshima after the war. He appears to have restored confidence in the garage and his staff appears competent. Let’s hope they make good decisions because, in the end, I still love racing.

  6. Avatar

    Your premise is incorrect. It’s not parity that is causing the final four to be the same, it’s the fact that they are four of the best drivers in the series right now. Isn’t that what the process of rewarding a driver with the championship is supposed to do? Now we want to manipulate it farther to undermine the championship more? Why don’t you just pick the 4 drivers you want in the final four?

    The real reason these discussions are always being tossed around is because there shouldn’t be a playoff to begin with in this sport. Now everyone spends their time discussing better ways to make this square peg fit into the round hole.
    Get back to basics and answer a very fundamental question… what is the highest purpose of having a championship to begin with? Isn’t to reward the driver who had the best season with a reward? If we agree on that then let’s go from that point and discuss the best way to do that and stop worrying about everything else.

    Also RE: “The next year, Gordon positioned himself for a title in his last full-time season running the No. 24 Chevrolet. The NASCAR Hall of Famer’s quest produced the highest ratings and viewership for Homestead’s finale since 2005.”
    It annoys me when someone uses an example to support their argument that upon closer inspection falls apart. That race didn’t get a bump in ratings because there were different people in the final four, it got that bump because it was Gordon’s last race before retirement. You could have at least included that in parenthesis to admit you weren’t oblivious to that contributing factor but instead you left that out because it better served your purpose of supporting the point you were trying to make. Don’t let facts stand in the way of a good story = sloppy journalism.

    • Tom Bowles

      Hey Bill B,

      You’re a great commenter but I wanted to challenge the logic on your “Sloppy journalism” paragraph. If Gordon’s final race was the only reason the finale ratings were up in 2015… why weren’t those records broken by Dale Earnhardt Jr. two years later? He was arguably just as popular, if not more so.

      But Earnhardt didn’t contend that season and so his final race was more of a mere formality. Gordon, by comparison, made that spirited playoff run capped off by the Martinsville victory that positioned him for a fifth championship. The championship brought with it the whole additional storyline of “retiring famous athlete going out on top.” There was momentum brought to the sport through Gordon’s success down the stretch… and I believe THAT made the difference there in a way Earnhardt’s mere presence in the final race wasn’t able to do two years later.

      Just be careful when you call something sloppy journalism. Everyone is free to form a different opinion based on facts but what you see here does come with careful reasoning. Appreciate you being such an avid reader and commenter on the site!

      • Avatar

        OK Tom, you are correct that it was a combination of retirement and being a contender in Gordon’s case and they were both essential for the ratings bump. Had he just been a contender without retirement it would have business as usual. I also think there was more at work with that bump than those two factors when comparing it to Jr’s final race. In my opinion, non-Gordon fans had more respect for Gordon (due to his success) than non-Jr, fans had for Jr. When Gordon retired it felt like more of a page turning… perhaps “the last great driver from the non-Chase era” that caused even non-Gordon fans to tune in.

        I also agree that the “sloppy journalism” was unfair and unwarranted in this case, so for that I apologize.

  7. Avatar

    Your baseball reference, wasn’t the long-time acting commissioner, Bud Seileg, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers? Somehow, baseball survived.
    But the last dollar, NASCAR will be working its collective race control and inspection antics to the max to get either Golden Boy (who has to win) or Kyle Larson (who has to win) into the 4. Two years of technical bullitins, phantom cautions at the roval, I could go on. What about the cautions at Kansas?
    I put $100.00 on Golden Boy to win this weekend.

    • Avatar

      Man, I really wish there was a way for me to take that bet.

      How about this for a bet… if Chase wins you get to keep talking about all the technical bulletins that only you seem to be able to see and I will never question or say another thing when you mention them. If Chase loses you never get to say the words technical or bulletin on this website.

      • Avatar

        Bill, there have been a steady stream of rule book updates (numbered bulletins) throughout the year in all three top divisions covering all types of areas. As a NASCAR race member, I get the emails and the link to the rules changes. I admit I have not read very many of them and usually the bigger changes are highlighted in the press. However, there has not been any change since mid August, so things have been stable, I assume.

        • Avatar

          Thank you Ricardo. I didn’t doubt that there are TBs but the way my friend Charlie has been referencing them makes it sound like they are weekly and all to the benefit of Chevy. BTW, I don’t give a crap about manufactures but I do care about people exaggerating and bending the truth to justify their biases. Bottom line, I am just tired of hearing him mention them in every post like they prove some larger conspiracy.

      • Avatar

        Amen Bill. I must be missing all the favoritism “Golden Boy” gets too. I’m neutral on him (don’t hate him/don’t mind him) but it puzzles me how some try to spin a conspiracy theory on things. We’ve got bigger issues to worry about as fans…. like voicing an opinion on what we want so the racing can improve, the venues can be more appealing (different tracks), and how to put people back in the stands by voicing change for such actions.

  8. Avatar

    Most of my thoughts have already been covered by others. But one thing that sticks out… the complaint about “the same 6 teams” being in the final 4 since 2014. I have to ask, under ANY points system that rewards to some degree teams/drivers who spend time at the FRONT of the field and/or winning races, just what other team(s) do you think would be in the top 5 that are NOT Hendricks, Gibbs, Penske, Stewart/Haas? I left out Furniture Row because they are no more, and were an extension of Gibbs. Childress without Newman’s consistency has no shot, and Roush hasn’t been consistently competitive for years now. So who’s left that should have made the list?

    As for the same 4 drivers, no surprise. The car and track position is more important than just about anything else out there, so you are surprised the same 4 top tier teams and the best driver/crew on each of those team are repeating at the top? Again I ask, who else would you expect to step up under these conditions? Hendricks is catching up, but they’re still not there yet… Outside of that team, who else is there?

    Replace this garbage car with something the drivers can RACE, and eliminate this stupid playoff system, and maybe, JUST MAYBE, we could see some different teams using different strategies to score enough points to win the championship. Was it really so bad that Matt Kenseth won a championship with CONSISTENCY and only 1 measly win? Does Logano’s championship really represent a year of success deserving of the title – especially considering the stats Harvick, Busch, AND Truex racked up in the same season? Get real. Put an asterisk next to his title along with about 5 of Jimmie’s 7.

    • Avatar

      While I am not a Logano fan (nor do I totally hate him) he probably should have been champion in 2015 based stats. He had 6 wins (most), top 5s 22 (2nd most), top 10s (28 tied for most), poles 6 (most), average finish 9.2 (best except for Kyle Busch 8.7 but he only ran 25 races that year). Unfortunately he decided that win at Kansas after he was already locked into the next round was important enough to spin Matt Kenseth out of the way. We know how that ended. I would bet that Logano fans are as bitter about that year as we Gordon fans were about 2007.

      The only point I am making here is that it kind of evened out but only because of the arbitrary, crapshoot, luck-dependent nature of the current championship format. Likewise, Kyle Busch shouldn’t have been champion in 2015 but there are at least a couple of years where he should have been. What a load of crap this championship format is.

      • Avatar

        Fair points, for sure. :-)

      • Avatar

        i don’t think there is much luck involved in the last race. It’s pretty clear nascar wants the championship decided by a race win so it’s a one in four chance of winning unless; a tornado touches down and takes logano out, a plague of locusts infest truex’s grill, the rapture occurs and kyle bush is spirited away or bubba accidentally spins into harvick.

        • Avatar

          2016,,, Edwards leading and somewhat in control of the race….JJ almost a lap down and a questionable caution comes out,,, Edwards, Logano and Busch all have issues on the subsequent chaotic restarts….Johnson backs into 7th championship. Now, we might be able to blame NASCAR for throwing a needless caution (they wanted a 7time champ, more importantly the cross sport hype that comes with it), but there had to be a good amount of luck involved when all three of the other contenders (anyone of which was faster than Johnson as long as they didn’t get damaged) all had issues. So yeah, there is a much higher probability that luck will have a larger hand in a one race shootout for the championship that almost any other format you could think of.

        • Avatar

          BTW, I get your larger point (you can bet your ass one of th efour contenders will win) but there is still a ton of luck too,

          • Avatar

            I suppose you’re right.
            I should have said no more luck than usual.

            The same amount of luck involved in Kyle being caught up in the rapture….

      • Avatar

        However, using your logic Joey shouldn’t have been the Champion last year also!

        • Avatar

          Right,,, BASED SOLELY ON STATS, Logano deserved the championship more in 2015 than he did last year. But now there are so many other factors, besides being the best, that determines the championship and that’s what’s sad.

  9. Avatar

    I wonder if the drivers, car owners. car mfg. and crew chiefs had a secret vote on keep t
    he format as is or go back to the Winston Cup format It would be interesting to know how that vote would be.

  10. Avatar

    Stage points, playoff points, pointy heads for all I care! People used to bitch about points racing when the title lasted all season. Now, the ONLY thing that is important is POINTS. I DON”T CARE ABOUT TRYING TO KEEP TRACK OF #25 DIFFERENT KINDS OF POINTS! I don’t even care that much about the ‘champeenship’ these days, as I find a 10 race ‘title’ unimpressive (sorry JJ). If points racing was so terrible with the Latford system, why is it suddenly not only OK but the entire focus of every race…to the detriment of the actual racing! Has it occurred to anyone that one of the reasons attendance and viewership are down is that with the emphasis totally on the title, each race has become less important overall? Who has time or patience to keep track of all the different types of points and what they mean? It used to be simple, and they have now made it a math problem. Pathetic.

  11. Avatar

    One thing I want to mention that nobody has yet, is the fact that all these drivers are veterans of the sport. I can’t help but think that these guys essentially have taken over the sport and are in the Champ 4 every year because of all the young inexperienced drivers that are brought up way too soon to Cup. Other than an inexpensive driver contract, I don’t understand what the rush is and I think the field of drivers top to bottom is the worst its been in several years. In a way, it bodes well for the future of the sport when guys like Harvick, Johnson, Hamlin start retiring, but right now, I don’t think this is why the veterans have essentially taken over the sport.

  12. Avatar

    I don’t care which side of the issue you are on, just the fact that you where civil to each other is very imppresive. Not to mention much appreciated.

  13. Avatar

    Arguably the championship format (tweaked with playoff points in 2017) is doing its job. As of right now, locked into the Championship 4 are the drivers that were 1st, 2nd, 3rd in regular season points (Busch, Logano & Harvick) and the driver with the most wins (Truex). Playoff points now reward full season performance through out the playoffs. It is near impossible to pull off what Newman and Gordon did without winning multiple races in the playoffs now (see Logano 2018). Outside of Hamilin being out right now, you have to say the best teams all year are poised to run for the title at Homestead.

  14. Avatar

    Im just going to say im a logano fan and really the only reason is his grit and determination. It started before he got ti joe gibbs racing when mark martin named him sliced bread. And the media jumped on it joey had nothing to do with that but got alot of heat when things didnt go good at gibbs. They put a young kid in a fast car and said here it is now go prove yourself your on your own bc you think you are better than anyone and joey never said that. The media and mark martin did. So after the gibbs deal went sour joey had a me against the world attitude. Can you really blame him. Thanks to penske and brad joey has grown to a familly man and great driver.