While perhaps not the greatest way to crown a champion, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are wildly entertaining.
That is, until it’s time for the championship race.
For nine weeks, we’re blessed with rising tension and drama as the playoff field shrinks from 16 drivers down to four. Every positions matters so dearly. There are battles with playoff implications going on all over the racetrack.
Then we hit that 10th week and it’s like watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Four drivers race their hearts out for a championship, while 32-36 other cars are merely there, riding in a line without a care.
There’s no nice way of saying this: the championship race sucks.
Yes, it has the flaw that a driver could win the first 35 races of the season, blow an engine in the 36th race and not be crowned the champion. But that’s not even what bothers me most about it. On paper, it actually sounds really entertaining to have no points to worry about, only who finishes the highest. The bigger problem comes in its execution.
From the Cup Series’ first season in 1949 to 2013, the champion only won the season finale seven times. Seven times!
Drivers who won the championship and the season finale:
1955: Tim Flock
1956 & 1957: Buck Baker
1965: Ned Jarrett
1971: Richard Petty
1998: Jeff Gordon
2011: Tony Stewart
In all but one of those instances (Stewart), the champion had double-digit wins. They dominated the season, so it makes sense that they’d win the finale. Since NASCAR started its elimination playoff format in 2014 that features four drivers in a championship race, the champion has won the race every single year.
Why the sudden change?
There should be an increase in champions that win the finale simply because it’s now possible for four drivers to win a championship in that race. In the past, the champion could have already clinched the title or maybe only one or two other drivers had a shot at it.
Also, in many of the situations, the champion was points racing, so they weren’t going for a win, but rather just a good, safe finish.
But on that same token, shouldn’t some more of the champions who had already clinched the title have won the finale prior to 2014? They clearly had the best car all season. With no points to worry about, they could go all out to get a win. Yet again, only seven times from 1949-2013.
What makes the sudden rise of champions winning the championship race even more peculiar is that from 2014-17, there was often a non-Championship 4 driver who dominated the finale, only to fade to the championship contenders at the very end. For a greater breakdown of that happening, check out this piece I wrote two years ago:
Those championship races were, while fishy, at least more entertaining than the current batch because they had comers and goers. But in the past three finales, it’s been the Championship 4 and only the Championship 4 running up front for the entire race. Those four drivers have finished 1-2-3-4 in two of the past three races and had the chance to do so last year had Denny Hamlin‘s car not overheated.
The past few years, the point could’ve been made that those four cars are up front because they’re the best four cars. But that couldn’t be said this year.
Kevin Harvick won nine races this year and had the fastest car all season long, but he missed the championship race on a fluke deal. Many expected him to be in the mix this past weekend, especially since it was at Phoenix Raceway, where Harvick is the all-time leader in wins. But Harvick was nowhere to be seen for most of the race. Near the end of the event, he finally climbed to seventh, where he finished. But he was never a threat for the win.
Those four championship cars were so much faster this past week at Phoenix that if someone told me the rest of the field had tapered spacers in their cars, I might believe them. And people call this the most competitive era of NASCAR?
So what’s the deal? Has NASCAR instructed the non-championship contenders to stay out of the way? Or are they too scared to race the top four?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on the Dale Jr. Download that it was a matter of the Championship 4 teams saving their best for last.
“Knowing what I know about Hendrick and other organizations, when they dyno the engines, that car that’s going for the title’s getting that best motor,” Earnhardt said. “They’re gonna comb the shop for the best chassis, all the best parts, the newest of everything, the less mileage. The best of the best that they can provide is going on that car.”
So that explains why the teammates of the Championship 4 drivers would be much slower than their contender counterparts. Hendrick Motorsports gave 2020 champion Chase Elliott the best of the best this past weekend, while the other three cars likely got whatever was leftover. But that still doesn’t explain Harvick and other drivers of teams without a dog in the fight.
Heck, if I ran a team that didn’t have any cars in the championship battle, I’d want to steal the show. I might even throw some cars out there that likely fail post-race inspection. Sure, you’d probably have your win thrown out, but you’d get your sponsors a bunch of TV time, which is something that barely happens to non-championship contenders now. And best case scenario, you don’t get caught cheating and steal the Phoenix win, giving your team momentum going into next season.
Of course the Championship 4 are saving their best equipment for last, but shouldn’t the other teams as well?
Instead, we’re stuck with a four-car race, while 32-36 other cars look like they aren’t even trying to win and certainly aren’t putting on a show. Four-car races are boring. I’ve seen local short-track races where there were only about four cars entered. Those are always the races where fans go get concessions or go to the bathroom because they know they aren’t missing anything entertaining.
The NASCAR Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series races at Phoenix were both way better than the Cup race because non-championship contenders were actually going for the win. Drivers like Noah Gragson, Chandler Smith and Ben Rhodes made things exciting at the end by sticking their noises right in there with the Championship 4 in the closing laps. That’s what fans want to see, not four drivers deciding it among themselves.
The ratings show just how much fans are turned off by the current way Cup does the championship race. This year’s finale was down nearly 700,000 viewers from last year. A 1.87 rating is horrible for a championship event. The Daytona 500 got a 4.19, and it was postponed to a Monday evening due to weather.
The 2015 finale had 7.64M viewers … meaning that the audience for the NASCAR title race has eroded by over half in the five years since.
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) November 11, 2020
What’s even worse is that the finale has lost 4.6 million viewers since 2015, the second year of the current format. How ironic is it that a system that was created to provide Game 7 moments has ultimately hurt the series?
In the past, fans watched the finales even when the title was already clinched because that didn’t matter to them. They just wanted to see a good race for one last time in the year — a race with battles all over the track where you didn’t know who was going to win.
Now we’re stuck ending the season with this sad joke of a race where you know only one of four drivers can win, where you know the rest of the field could catastrophically wreck but still barely be talked about on TV and where you know that it’s just going to bore you to death for three hours. You might as well just turn it on for the last 10 laps, see who wins and then enjoy the celebration, because the celebration was more exciting than the actual race.
I hope NASCAR sees this decline in ratings and makes changes to the finale. At the very least, give the non-championship contenders some incentive to go for the win instead of discouraging it, which seems to be what’s going on now. Give a million-dollar bonus to someone outside the Championship 4 who wins the race.
It wouldn’t bother me if the guy 10th in points goes for the win and accidentally takes out a couple Championship 4 drivers. Then there’d actually be a Game 7 moment, and the networks would have their highlight they could use for the next 30 years.
I don’t care what, but changes need to be made to the finale. Let’s make the finale a race again.