HOMESTEAD, Fla — Winning a championship in any sport has always been the true measuring stick of greatness. I mean, when we discuss the Mount Rushmore of any league, the first criteria is always, how many championships has he or she won?
Well, NASCAR is the same. But, to what level is greatness defined? Championships has always been it with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles always being compared to.
Now, we’re in a different era though. Since 2014, NASCAR’s champion wasn’t crowed based off points. Yes, the first 35 races run during a season saw points being the reason the Championship 4 was formed, but it wasn’t the end all be all.
How many drivers have we seen have a season to where they were outside of the top 10 of the overall points standings but they march deep into the playoffs? The consistency may not have been there but they won enough races at the right time to keep going.
I mean, all you have to do in the 26 race regular season is find victory lane at least once. If you can do that and stay in the top 30 of the points standings, you’re marching to the playoffs. Then, if you win at least one race in each of the first three rounds, you get to the Championship 4.
But, from the Round of 8 on, it’s where drivers say winning a title gets tense.
“It’s stressful, man,” said 2015 series champion Kyle Busch. “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.
“You look at it, I think we were one through eight last week at Phoenix at one point in the race, right, so it’s hard, it’s not easy and you’re racing for points, literally single points at times that can get you in or out.
“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.”
I mean, look at how stressful it is to make the Championship 4, but the guys that do so are there for a reason. Now, the title isn’t shaped off of points though like it was prior to 2014, it’s based off of who can cross the finish line first among the four championship eligible participants. To that, the drivers think that you can’t fault someone for a whole season based off of one race.
They think making the Championship 4 should hold almost as much weight now as winning a championship.
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Denny Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “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.”
His teammate Martin Truex Jr. agrees. While he won a title under this format (2017), he feels like winning a championship now has never been more difficult under this Championship 4 format.
“I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship),” Truex said on the topic. “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 think if you look at the elimination races and the stress, the amount of decisions that are made, the amount of laps that are raced, how many things in racing can happen to you. If you get to this level and have this much success, you don’t really believe in luck any more, you know? You can’t because if you do, then you’re relying on luck to get you where you want to go. It’s probably not going to work out consistently.
“So 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.”
I mean, they’re not wrong. Despite this system, the cream has always rose to the top. Busch has made five straight final round appearances. Harvick, has five in six tries. Truex, has four in the last five years. Since this format was adopted, these are the top three drivers in nearly every statistical category.
But, each has just one championship to their name in NASCAR’s top level. With one race shaping the champion, do we compare them to Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson? If so, they fall way short.
“Yeah, I’m behind for sure,” Busch said of where he’d like to be now compared to his goals. “Definitely behind and in wins and championships. Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at.”
Busch, says that while he’s arguably a generational talent, if he only gets one championship, it would “suck.”
“If I end with one, that’s going to suck,” Busch continued. “If I can only get two, well, whatever. But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable.
“When you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”
Do we judge him differently though? In a day and age where winning is arguably more important than ever, Busch has made it to the final round five straight years. Shouldn’t that hold as much merit as one championship?
Since this format was adopted, the only champion since 2014 to have won at least a second title has been Jimmie Johnson. If you go back to 2012, Johnson is the only driver to have won multiple titles in his career in that time frame.
Just think about it. Brad Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014), Busch (2015), Truex Jr. (2017) and Logano (2018) have all won championships over the last seven years but that has been their first and only. Denny Hamlin is trying to join that list as he’s the only driver in the Championship 4 to have never won a title.
He knows that and hears the noise, but also points out that history appears to also be on his side. If he somehow doesn’t win the race and the championship on Sunday, do we look at 2019 as a failure?
He’s won six times. Has more top fives and top 10’s in this season than any other season during his career. He won the Daytona 500, won the Bristol Night Race, made it to the Championship 4, but is a title the only thing we gauge off of?