The Cup championship: Where are the repeaters?
When the NASCAR Cup playoffs open Sunday with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Kyle Busch will be the only driver in the 16-man playoff field with more than one Cup championship.
In fact, Busch, the champion in 2015 and 2019, is the only Cup Series regular – including all playoff and non-playoff drivers – with more than one title.
Additionally, the Cup series has not crowned a back-to-back champion since Jimmie Johnson put together a streak of five straight titles from 2006-10.
Stacking multiple championships used to be a thing. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Johnson famously totaled seven each, Jeff Gordon got four and Tony Stewart, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Lee Petty scored three each.
Yet accomplished current drivers Brad Keselowski (35 race wins), Kevin Harvick (60), Martin Truex Jr. (31) and Joey Logano (29) have not been able to repeat championships.
After winning his championship in 2012, Keselowski immediately put another title on his target list, saying that two-time champions seemed destined for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He’s still waiting, and it won’t happen this year because he missed the playoffs in his first year as an owner-driver.
Hard times for those driving toward top-of-the-mountain streaks and/or multiples.
The championship landscape changed dramatically in 2004 when the Chase format was introduced, limiting the number of drivers eligible to win the title over the final weeks and bringing in the 10-race run to glory. An even bigger change arrived in 2014 with the introduction of round-by-round eliminations and a “final four” group of drivers racing for the title in a top-finisher-takes-all format in the season finale.
The elimination rounds have modified the approach of drivers in the season’s final weeks. It’s not always about winning, although a win automatically means advancing to the next round. Riding a less-than-perfect car to a decent finish and avoiding finishes in the 30s also are big goals.
“You don’t have to win,” said Chase Briscoe, one of four drivers (also Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric) participating in the playoffs for the first time. “You can ‘point’ your way there, and that’s something that is hard for me – to realize that you don’t always have to win the race or try to take a 12th-place car and win with it. You have to be able to take a 12th-place car and run ninth with it.”
The bumpy ride through the playoffs has made advancing to the final four and the last race – scheduled again this year at Phoenix Raceway – one of the spotlighted goals for Cup drivers. Much like reaching the Final Four in college basketball, the College Football Playoff or the College World Series, claiming one of the four Championship 4 spots in the Cup Series has become a badge of honor in its own right.
Since 2014, only three drivers – Kyle Busch, Harvick and Truex – have been in the Championship Four five times. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have reached the last rung on the ladder four times.
“The format is significantly more challenging,” Cindric said. “It’s how it is. From year to year, you see teams and drivers who are capable of winning a race change. You see that changing throughout the season.”
Since 2004, when Kurt Busch won the first title in the revised version of determining the champion, Hamlin and Harvick own the record for most playoff appearances with 16. Hamlin’s best finish has been second – in 2010.
Ryan Blaney (six), Alex Bowman (five), Austin Dillon (five) and William Byron (four) have been frequent visitors to the playoffs but haven’t won the championship. Of that group, only Blaney and Bowman have reached the round of eight.
On Sunday, the journey to a first championship -- or a repeat -- begins again.