NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Championship Race the Punchline to NASCAR’s Greatest Joke

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:

MASSIE: ARE NON-CHAMPIONSHIP 4 DRIVERS ALLOWED TO WIN AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI?

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.

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.

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37 Comments
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Steven

Points points points points……… it annoys the hell out of me. I don’t really have s drop of passion left for Nascar anymore.

doug

regular season take top 16 drivers,go for it.race half the field
no elems reset points no stages. no one bad race and your out.
win or points no riding for a finish

thank God there is mav tv, speed sport,. speed 51
street stocks and late models short tracks
old school push them out of the way,. and no follow the leaders
no running 50 laps saying you couldn’t pass the leader

kb

I gotta ask. How does CLYDE look the other drivers in the face knowing they out raced him the whole season? As assinine as the season was. Can he look himself in the mirror and say, YES? Doubt he thinks about it, the blessed one of Bill and his second wife.

At least the driver who came in 3rd and won a few years ago has the feather in his cap or argument to at least say he had the most wins and did not win the “final” because a seemingly deranged driver who crapped his race diaper. Another year a JGR driver dove down on him to complete the NASCAR narrative of 7 TIME! The driver said he was sorry to the crew chief and retired thereafter! CLYDE does not have that luxury. The set up for HMS post YIMMIE is set! LOL.

And the senile old farts view little Chase as Bill, the story continues…………………LOL. It seems to me senile old men on THE FRONTSTRECH just love their “legacy drivers”. METHINKS THEY THINK their hero’s are still in the car driving! LOL. GO SCREW!

eddo

huh??

Carl D.

Speak English, please…

Rich

UR an idiot…
i don’t like playoffs either, 1 reason not to watch other sports.
Hapoy Chase won, kid did win 5 races and more than Jerky Joey.
i don’t like the knock out format of playoffs, best on ONE day style either.
But i do like stage racing as they try to get points and make middle part of race interesting. but consistency is what I like ALL season so believe in total points ALL year is best way with stages and more points for win is best way.

Greg rehm

Hey… Kb.. Jack Daniels is no longer a sponsor, try milk! How many prize fighters win the Belt with a last round knock out? Last minute Hail Mary pass in football.
To be in the final 4 puts u on level ground.. umm, unlike you, sir..

Jo

The really funny part of this rant is that kb apparently thinks calling Chase “Clyde” is some kind of insult. His best friends, including Ryan Blaney, call him that. His given name is William Clyde Elliott II and being nicknamed “Chase” sure beats being another “Junior.”

Beyond that, Chase/Clyde has absolutely no problem looking other drivers in the face since only 2 of them had more wins than he did. And kb’s fave Joey, aka “Sliced Bread,” wasn’t even one of them.

LMAO!

WJW Motorsports

Shhh – don’t mention observable numbers that continue to show how they’ve destroyed a once great sport. We all heard recently from an authority on the subject that the on track product is superior now, and that in fact this championship system has actually saved the sport.

Bill B

I don’t buy the “they have the best stuff” argument. I am sure they do but I don’t think “the best stuff” would guarantee a 1-2-3-4 finish every year. Surely some blind squirrel would crash that party and find a top 4 finish. And even if the final order did result in the 4 championship contenders finishing at the top, what about the rest of the race? Lap after lap the same 4 guys running up front and no one else able to contend even in the short run. I don’t care what anyone else says, the non-contenders are not racing to win or even place. They obviously are getting out of the way. Whether it is a NASCAR edict or a gentleman’s agreement, either way the race is a fraud as it is presented to the fans. No wonder ratings decline each year, fans can see through the hypocrisy and realize that it’s a farce.

I don’t know what the answer is but this current situation is not good for the sport. I do like the idea of giving non-contenders a bonus if they win but what good would that do if they refuse to mix it up with the contenders? The only excitement/drama in last Sunday’s race was whether or not there would be a late caution (I’m glad there wasn’t, that’s just more manipulation to manufacture excitement and create an arbitrary winner). It’s a shame but the championship race has turned into a turd instead of the pinnacle of the season.

Hank

Most sports, I think have some form of playoffs. This means that as the playoffs start teams or players fall off or out of competition this would be to clear the field and move on the next round. Now I am not saying NASCAR race 4 cars but a field of the top 12-15-18-20 cars. We all know the bottom of the field will not be competitive, so move them out of the way as weeks of true playoff continue. A true playoff is to eliminate losers and advance the winners. Yes I know NASCAR is different from stick and ball sports but “playoff” has a meaning. So if you are going to use the term make it mean something understandable.

With less cars running you could see fewer cars racing closer in bunches and not having to worry about lap cars lagging behind. Pit road could be safer with less traffic. The benefit of less cars, more available drivers to win would make more competition.

Standing down from soap box
Hank

A friend suggested full field for final with a caution at the the halfway point all cars below a certain point level would be taken to garage and all other run the last half of the final.

Bob

The next thing to “rassling”.

Steve

When Chase had to go to the back for not passing inspection twice, you knew the fix was in right there are he would come from last to win, That way NASCAR could have their big fake game 7 moment, That championship race was the worst NASCAR race all season, And NASCAR wonders why no one wants to watch any more, It’s because of your fake Playoffs that true NASCAR hate

TiminPayson

Absolutely true. From the time his jack man got to “reset” We knew the script.

Jo

I guess the crew actually read the rule book, which obviously you did NOT, Timmy!

“Should a crew member’s feet prematurely touch the pit road surface prior to servicing the vehicle, said crew member(s) can re-establish their position back to or behind service wall prior to servicing the vehicle to avoid a penalty.”

A Different Steve

Actually, the gift was the week before when Nascar allowed him to continue to race with no radio. If they black flag him, he doesn’t win that race and Harvick gets in. Then we have a different champion.

sb

This is why having a ‘playoff’ with every team on the track is ridiculous! They are outrun because they don’t want to get in anyone’s way, and they are virtually ignored by the coverage. I fell asleep for a good part of the race. watching 4 cars on the track just doesn’t cut it. but, Nascar will continue to ignore the fact that their TV numbers are dropping, especially during the final 10 races, and keep selling the Kool Aid.

rg72

In fairness the ratings comparison to 2015 is a bit misleading. That was the year rain delayed the race and pushed it into the Sunday Night Football window. The numbers undoubtedly included a lot of accidental viewers tuning in for football not NASCAR.
That said, the die was cast in 2014. Newman and Hamlin lucked into the Championship 4 and suddenly had Top 4 cars most of the day. Gordon, that year’s version of 2020 Harvick, inexplicably pitted from a lead position late in the race.
And never forget a few years back when Larson had the best car by a mile and mysteriously backed off from pushing for the lead.
No doubt there is a credibility problem whether it’s the Championship 4 getting some type of edge or the other 30+ drivers rolling over.

Bill B

I agree with you about the 2015 ratings but I don’t think it had as much to do with the football crowd overlapping as much as Gordon’s retirement and his being in contention for the championship.
But I am just throwing that out there, I have no actual data to back that up.

Jo

I can understand teammates not wanting to get in the way of the Championship finalists. After all, team orders have always been a part of the sport, going all the way back to when Childress put a second car in the final race (driven by Neil Bonnett) to give Dale Sr. a bit of cushion in case he had a really bad day. However, I don’t understand Harvick at all. After crapping the bed in the Round of 8, I would have thought he would want to redeem himself with a win at Phoenix, if only out of a sense of pride. Of course, this year’s 1-2-3-4 finish isn’t always the norm. I don’t remember any other Playoff finale ending that way. I do remember Logano purposely holding Kyle Busch up in the closing laps in the year Truex won.

I wouldn’t want to see the mayhem that occurred in the Truck or Xfinity races, and generally, the Cup races have been far cleaner overall this year than in other seasons. Maybe give the winning driver outside of the Final Four some incentive that would carry over to the next season. Anyway, I doubt that we will see any major changes anytime soon, so this all more pissing and moaning to no effect.

Jo

Speaking of punchlines and Logano, I just read where Sliced Bread said he considered spinning our a backmarker to give himself a caution near the end. What a guy!

jdquick

No worse than what Gibbs did for their little God love it Denny. Still say he should have been an the side Sunday, for the actions of the team.

Jo

I agree about Denny. He thinks he’s “entitled.”

DoninAjax

He’s not the only one driving for Reverend Joe.

Josalyn

Just have a full season championship again. People stopped watching Nascar….ratings began to decline in 2004 and have since…since the beginning of a Playoff…or whatever…just BE Nascar and go back to what made you successful in the first place.

Jo

Can you supply FACTS that ratings have declined ever since 2004? Just asking. I’d love to see actual numbers instead of allegations.

Bill B

I’m not going to do that research but I would bet the ratings didn’t start declining immediately. NASCAR had a lot of forward inertia by 2004. The first year or two most fans gave it a chance but it was apparent that many did not like it. That is when things started to flatten out. Add in the dreadful COT which we were promised would be the best thing since sliced bread, Tiregate at Indy and Charlotte, and a lot of other missteps and those that were on the fence started toppling over.

In hindsight it is also apparent that NASCAR had experienced a “fad” type growth, a classic bubble. Eventually all bubbles burst, it just takes some catalyst to make it unstable. For my money the changes that started in 2004 was that catalyst.

Or not.

Jo

I have always thought NASCAR miscalculated when their popularity began to rise during the Gordon-Earnhardt era. Then they made the mistake of thinking they could compete head to head with the NFL. Many bad decisions followed, but I won’t blame any single one. The overall effect was boring races and I continue to believe that was more damaging than any change to the points/championship system.

wildcatsfan2016

So it seems many fans don’t like this format (no surprise to many of the posters here) and yet NASCAR AND the TV partners continue to act as though it is the best thing ever. Maybe the abysmal ratings will give the tv people a reason to re-think it, since they do all of NASCAR’s thinking these days.

I know I wasn’t watching other than the last 5 minutes and that is only because it got dark. The weather was great here so I was enjoying the good weather instead.

Michael Latino

The whole Chase format sucks. There was nothing wrong with the way they raced until 2013. The Brian France decided he wanted Nascar to be Football or Hockey. He wanted fake excitement. And so we ended up with what we have now. I’ve been watching Nascar since I was about 15. I am now 73 and I have to tell you I don’t watch it like I used too. Before I had to see ever minute of each race. Now I don’t and I don’t care. I saw a few minutes of Stage 1 & 2 of the last race. I skipped the entire third. Nascar has become fake. I don’t know why Nascar doesn’t understand that.

Donald

You haven’t said anything that a number of us have been saying for years. This whole Chase/Playoffs farce has made NASCAR the laughing stock of motorsports. I stopped watching anything but the road races. I said sarcastically that maybe the next step is to hold the final race on a figure eight track. Ive given up.

Stephen

Nascar has now inserted itself in political correctness, and filled the track with cookie cutter cars and a bunch of no talent drivers. I’m done ,after a lifetime of being a huge fan. I hope they go bankrupt.

U64387

I have been a NASCAR fan since the late 60’s when my dad would occasionally take me to Daytona Speedway to watch them practice. My dad drove ambulance for the Beacon Ambulance Company and so, unbeknownst to me, I got treated to milkshakes and Oreos by a few of the drivers. Back then, “teams” meant the guys who brought and serviced the car, not the teams of JGR, RCR, and HMS like you see today. NASCAR started going downhill when they started allowing Rick Hendrick and Robert Childress et al to start fielding two, three and four car teams like those existing today. NASCAR started losing fans when they alienated the little guy and started mandating all teams buy their engines and parts from only NASCAR certified suppliers. Nowadays, you have to run an engine by HMS, or Yates, or Toyota or not at all. The rule book hardly has any flex in it. All tolerances are down to a gnats wing. The solution? I would think it obvious at this point…, go back to the future.

M Cooper

NASCAR doesn’t want anybody to pass Dale Earnhardt Sr or Richard Petty for all the championship titles that they’ve won. Jimmy Johnson might have went on to win an eighth or ninth championship title in his career but NASCAR is not gonna let that happen. So this is what we get to watch or not.

Ron

The NASCAR loss of viewership has nothing to do with the playoff format. They’ve changed it every year or two for decades. When NASCAR decided to bend over for the PC crowd and the “take a knee” crowd, they stabbed their base in the back. They went the way of the NFL and other sports franchises. People want to tune in and escape the bs. If they can’t do that, there’s no point in watching. I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the years, going to NASCAR races. Not another dime. I’m done.

Ron

NASCAR should have known it would happen. Did they have their heads buried in the sand when it happened to the NFL?

Alexander Carabitses

As an experiment for next season, award a non-playoff driver that wins the finale the 5th place points position. If it increases the competitiveness of the other drivers, work to implement a milder version of this rule, like the $1 million bonus that’s suggested by the author, in future seasons. Both the IndyCar and IMSA finales had a lot more action than the Pheonix race because every single driver was racing as if their lives depended on how they finished, even if they weren’t in the championship hunt.

I also think that, as things currently stand, the non-playoff drivers may fear that they are expendable in the eyes of the playoff drivers (think Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in 2010, or how Joey Lagano sacrificed half the field in the 2016 finale by turning into his teammate, rather than running on the apron after he and Carl Edwards made contact).

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