When Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Cup Series race and championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, he became the first driver to win two championships under the elimination-style playoff system since NASCAR developed it in 2014 — something that is significant for numerous reasons.
Prior to this year, a different driver had won every time under the current system.
NASCAR Cup Series Champions Under Elimination-Style Playoffs
2014: Kevin Harvick
2015: Kyle Busch
2016: Jimmie Johnson
2017: Martin Truex Jr.
2018: Joey Logano
2019: Kyle Busch
This accomplishment by Busch places him further up the ladder of NASCAR greats. In terms of career wins, Busch’s 56 wins made him the second greatest driver with only one championship. Bobby Allison is the best driver with only one title via his 84 career wins. Winning a second title instead places Busch on an exclusive list of 16 drivers all time to win more than one title. It also quiets the haters that don’t accept Busch’s first championship because he missed 11 races and was granted a playoff waiver.
But this win by Busch did more than just boost his future NASCAR Hall of Fame career. It legitimized the way in which the Cup Series crowns a champion. Having a different champion every year makes the championship battle look like a crapshoot. It makes it seem like March Madness in NCAA basketball, which someone once said was the greatest sporting event but a terrible way to crown a champion.
But with there now being a two-time champion under this format and that repeat winner being a driver of the caliber of Busch, it shows that NASCAR got the champion right. After all, Busch won the regular season title and would have won the championship by two points under the old non-playoff system. And with a nearly identical cast of characters qualifying for the Championship 4 every year, it make the championship less random than it may seem.
The elimination playoff system is NASCAR’s fifth different style (depending on how you count it) of determining a champion. The previous four were by money (1949-67, 1974), mileage (1968-73), the Bob Latford system of equal points per race (1975-2003) and the Chase (2004-13). There were many variations within each of these four spans, but these particular four were drastically different from each other. In each of these four systems, repeat champions were a common occurrence. Each system had a two-time champion by its fifth season at the latest. It took the current format six seasons to get repeat winner, but a one-year difference is hardly worth mentioning.
Now, the thing to watch for is whether or not this system produces back-to-back championships for drivers, something that happened quite frequently under the previous four formats. This is important because NASCAR needs stars, and stars are built on dynasties. Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon all built up the popularity of the sport through their star power created by winning back-to-back titles.
But part of why there haven’t been any back-to-back titles in the winner-takes-all championship race is because of how much more stress is added to the drivers and teams than the previous season-long or 10-race Chase formats.
“It’s stressful, man,” Busch said. “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.”
Busch has made it in the past five Championship 4s and has two championships to show for it. With the added stress levels of the eliminations and the one-race shootout, it raises the question of does a championship mean even more now than it used to. It is a highly polarizing topic among fans.
“I think things have changed so much, certainly a different day and time than it was in the old points system,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “If you look at a 10-race playoff the way it used to be, things would be different.
“Is it harder or easier? I don’t know. I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win. 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 don’t know. I can’t really answer that. It would be amazing to win two.”
One thing the addition of a winner-take-all championship race has certainly added is more prestige to the drivers who finish second through fourth in the standings. It’s easy to rattle off what drivers won championships in certain years, and longtime fans could likely name who the championship runner-up was each season. But prior to 2014, only the most hardcore of fans could remember who finished third and fourth in the standings each year. With the current championship system, the stat of Championship 4 appearances has emerged. But how much weight should that hold in the accomplishments of a driver’s career?
“I think all generations are probably judged a little bit differently, but it definitely could be a possibility of how people are looked at and in the stat column of how many Championship 4s are made, but I honestly had never thought about it like that,” Kevin Harvick, who won one championship in five Championship 4 appearances, said.
Championship 4 Appearances
Kyle Busch: 5 (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Kevin Harvick: 5 (2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Martin Truex Jr.: 4 (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Joey Logano: 3 (2014, 2016, 2018)
Denny Hamlin: 2 (2014, 2019)
Carl Edwards: 1 (2016)
Jeff Gordon: 1 (2015)
Jimmie Johnson: 1 (2016)
Brad Keselowski: 1 (2017)
Ryan Newman: 1 (2014)
Hamlin, who has two Championship 4 appearances and no titles yet, was much more on board for Championship 4 appearances becoming a bigger stat.
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said. “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 to Homestead. Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend. That’s really different.
“I think when you had championships based off of the entire season, even when we had the playoff system of having it for 10 straight weeks, having that playoff, it was a bigger sample size, right? You felt like, wow, that guy, he’s been the best over the long haul. I don’t want to discredit anyone that’s won under this format. For the most part, the best still came out and won. But certainly it is a little by chance any time you deal with a one-race winner-take-all.”
Whether you love or hate the elimination-style playoffs with a championship race, it appears here to stay for the time being. It will be interesting to see whether this format produces more repeat champions as well as how history will remember those who made the Championship 4 and didn’t win the title.