The One Thing Every NASCAR Cup Champion since 2014 Has in Common
A billion to one. Maybe a trillion to one. Or how about as Disney’s Buzz Lightyear is known for saying, “To infinity and beyond”!
Those types of odds would seemingly be appropriate to use as a benchmark when it comes to the last seven NASCAR Cup champions.
As NASCAR prepares this Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for its eighth consecutive season-ending championship under the elimination-style playoff system that went into effect in 2014, EVERY eventual Cup champ from 2014 through 2020 has had to do the same exact thing: win the season-ending race to also capture the Cup title as well.
That’s right: when Kevin Harvick (pictured above) won the championship in 2014, he had to win the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And that has been a routine that has continued every year since then, including Chase Elliott winning last year’s season finale at Phoenix to also earn his first career Cup championship.
NASCAR Cup Championship 4 Era
(Championship 4 race winners/season champion)
So, will we see what some are calling “eight for eight” on Sunday?
Or, finally, will those seemingly infinitesimal odds of the season champ must first win the season end game to also take the championship, finally come to an end?
Given the uncertainty with how every NASCAR race has the propensity of playing out, it’s uncannily befuddling how the top finishing Championship 4 driver in the first seven championship-deciding races has consistently avoided calamity, crashes, flat tires or even untimely mechanical failure to take both the race and championship top spot.
But the numbers are nonetheless the numbers.
Even more odd, the Cup Series is the only one of NASCAR’s three premier series that can boast such an odds oddity.
In the Xfinity Series, the season-ending race winner has taken the championship just four times in the seven-year history: Daniel Suarez (2016), Tyler Reddick (2018 and 2019) and Austin Cindric (2020).
It’s even more sparse in the Truck Series. The season-ending race winner took the championship just twice in that seven-year stretch: Brett Moffitt in 2018 and Sheldon Creed in 2020.
Yet the Cup Series is batting 1.000. The season-ending race winner has also wound up being the season champ each time: Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Jimmie Johnson (2016), Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018), Kyle Busch (2019) and Chase Elliott (2020).
So, will that 7-for-7 streak stretch to 8-for-8 Sunday? Is it still a must-win situation, or will we finally see someone win the championship yet perhaps finish, say, fifth in the race?
Or maybe as low as 30th, perhaps, if there’s a big wreck and all four Championship 4 drivers take each other out? Will the championship ultimately be decided by the guy who slides forward the furthest on the track after impact with his other three title rivals?
What the Championship 4 Are Saying
Each of the 2021 Championship 4 drivers was asked if they feel Sunday at Phoenix will once again be a must-win situation in the race if they’re to also win the championship?
• Will KYLE LARSON need to win his series-high 10th win of the season to also claim his first career Cup championship? Heck, he doesn’t know. He initially disagreed with the must-win premise, then promptly reversed gears.
• Will defending Cup champ CHASE ELLIOTT, who won at Phoenix in last year’s championship-deciding race, make it two season-ending race wins and two season titles in a row?
* Will DENNY HAMLIN ultimately need to win the season finale and FINALLY take home his first career Cup crown as an encore?
* Or will MARTIN TRUEX JR. have to do the same thing he did in 2017: winning the final race to also win the resulting championship?
Now, how you win it is a whole other matter, indeed. What about wrecking a fellow Championship 4 contender—maybe even on the final lap of the race—so that you could win yourself?
Only Elliott and Hamlin dared to tread into that kind of deep water, so to speak.
Said Elliott: “I mean, I would prefer just to be fast enough where you’re not behind them in the first place.”
But Hamlin may have had the most thoughtful and poignant answer of all when asked whether he’d wreck a fellow contender if it meant the difference to win the championship.
“I certainly wouldn’t try to wreck them by any means,” Hamlin said. “Move someone out of the way, shove them up a lane, maybe. I don’t know. I feel like I’m just more of a purist than most.
“Again, that’s what fires me up so much about stuff like last week or even Indy. It’s like, Man, we didn’t even have a chance to, like, battle. Let’s go toe-to-toe, two drivers, battle for a race win.
“In today’s world people will just accept getting knocked out of the way. People accept it now. We used to show highlights of the bump-n-run with Rusty (Wallace) and Jeff Gordon. Now no one gives a (crap). It’s just part of normal everyday racing.
“The craft of actually being good at technique and passing and working someone over, that craft has kind of just gone away. It’s not for good or bad.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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