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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: How Will Success Be Judged in This Era of NASCAR?

The era of a good points day is officially over. Has been for awhile now.

Points do matter. After all, if Kevin Harvick gains more than the one stage point at Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway than he did, odds are he’s Championship 4 bound in the NASCAR Cup Series this year. But he didn’t, and he isn’t.

That’s not to discount the statistically dazzling season the soon-to-be 45-year-old Harvick has had: a career-high nine wins, an average finish of 7.3 (rivaling Jeff Gordon’s famed 13-win 1998 season where he posted a 5.7 average finish) and clearly the best car over the totality of the season.

Uncharacteristic performances (not aided any by a mist-covered track in Texas) when it mattered most were Harvick and the No. 4 team’s demise this season. The playoffs may be 10 races, but it’s three races at a time that decide your fate. Even if you have 67 playoff points built up in your pocket coupled with a 42-point buffer on the cutoff with one race to go.

Harvick, though, was very matter-of-fact in his post-race Martinsville interview, minutes after he attempted to move Kyle Busch out of the way in order to advance to have a shot at the title at Phoenix Raceway.

“Look, these championships aren’t like winning like Petty and Earnhardt used to win them,” Harvick said post-race. “You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and came up short.”

In a system Harvick said is “obviously skewed more towards entertainment than the whole year,” not making the Championship 4 or winning the championship can still be looked at as a success to some. I’m not sure if Bill Elliott felt that way after his 11-win 1985 season saw him fall short of the title, or when Ryan Newman‘s eight-win 2003 saw him not even crack the top five.

2020 marks the seventh year of the modern-day championship format in NASCAR. 16 drivers, four rounds, four eliminations per round, culminating in a one-race, winner-take-all bonanza.

Now that drivers have become accustomed to this format and all that comes with it, have their definitions of a successful season changed at all? Is it championship or bust, or is making the final race, where anything can happen, enough?

Denny Hamlin, who has been a co-championship favorite with Harvick all season long, said that no matter what happens Sunday, he can’t ask for much more.

“This means you had a successful year,” Hamlin said this week at Championship 4 media day. “It’s not whether you win this weekend or not … the championship is not necessarily an indicative measuring stick of your whole year. If you get to the final four, that is a measuring stick that you’ve had a successful year.

“I think the titles will always mean more because it’s, OK, not only did you get to the final four, you also beat your competition, so it will always hold a little bit higher regard. But certainly I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season.”

Brad Keselowski pointed to teams putting specific clauses in contracts for making the Championship 4, heightening the importance of going to the season finale with the trophy still in reach.

“The appearances are pretty big, no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “I think… I don’t want to undermine winning the championship, but just to make it to the final four nowadays is a huge accomplishment. It’s very difficult to do.

“I think we all have our own sense of how important it is to make the final four and how significant it is to our sport across the different stakeholders, and I’m right in line with that.”

His team Penske teammate Joey Logano disagreed, though. Keeping in line with his aggressive on track nature, it’s championship or bust for the 2018 champion, who is returning to the final four for the fourth time in his career.

“I think titles are the most important thing,” he said. “Any sport you look at, the question is, ‘How many championships do you have?’ Not ‘how many times have you made it to the finals?’ I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times. That’s great; it shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”

Harvick, Hamlin, Keselowski and Logano all have a combined 14 Championship 4 appearances. Chase Elliott has one, making it difficult for the Martinsville winner to weigh getting there vs. finishing the job.

“I haven’t really thought about that a ton,” Elliott said. “One thing I know for sure is you can’t win a championship unless you’re part of the final four. That’s my response to that.

“I know with the way the rules are, the way this deal is, you’re not going to win one unless you’re part of the final four. That I know for a fact.”

When asked if he’d deem his 2020 season a success now that he’s gotten over the proverbial hump and made the title race, Elliott said, “our season is not over, so we’ll find out Sunday.”

Even going back to last year, whether merely getting to then-finale Homestead-Miami Speedway being the ultimate goal was a major topic of conversation.

“For me you definitely race all year to get here,” Harvick said at 2019 Championship 4 media day. “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.”

Kyle Busch and Logano may not see eye to eye on, well, anything. But both seem to be in the camp of anything short of taking home the trophy at seasons end isn’t good enough.

“For us to be eligible five years in a row I think is a pretty cool thing, but to come out with one of four is not so cool,” Busch said just says before winning his second Cup championship.

The age-old mantra of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” doesn’t apply to NASCAR’s playoff system, and all the differing iterations of it. Sure, a streak of top-10 finishes can be impressive, but it won’t guarantee you A) a spot in the playoffs, and B) success in the playoffs.

“I think things have changed so much; I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win,” 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. said last year. “I don’t know how to view (success), to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances [or] 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 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.”

That guy is often forgotten, as Logano brought up in his availability, asking the media if anybody remembered who finished second in last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Logano said he has “no clue” who was the runner-up.

“I know I wasn’t in it, that’s what I know.

“When I look at it that way, it’s about the championship,” he continued. “It’s about the big trophy. That’s all anybody remembers. Everybody remembers Kyle Busch won, that’s all I remember.”

Hamlin, though, doubled down on his stance, citing the No. 11 team’s preseason objective of just getting there and then letting the chips fall where they may.

“I know that it’s our goal for our No. 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make it to the final four,” he said. “It’s never win a championship. It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35‑36‑week body of work.”

Hamlin said you can be “perfect” in the title race, lead every lap, do virtually everything right and something completely out of your control take you out. That’s why he considers where he’s gotten so far a success, and anything else, like Harvick said, is a bonus.

“It’s never to actually win the championship,” Hamlin said. “That’s just a very hard goal. … You can’t just put all your eggs in a last‑race championship basket of whether your season was a success or not.”

Whoever doesn’t win the title on Sunday will for sure wish they did. And they’ll be sour about it.

But as this era of NASCAR continues to roll along with drivers stepping away, new talents arriving and drama and excitement following at every turn, it begs the newfound question: When we look back in a few decades from now, will championships matter as much as we think?

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Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington.

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