NASCAR: How the playoffs have changed history

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images) /

NASCAR has utilized the playoffs since the 2004 season, with the modern format having been introduced ahead of the 2014 season and stages having been added in 2017. How have the playoffs changed history?

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott won the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship, the first of his career, on Sunday, November 8 by winning the Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway over fellow championship contenders Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in second, third and fourth place, respectively.

This championship marked the seventh title decided in the current Championship 4 era, which was introduced as a part of a new playoff format in 2014, and the 17th decided in the playoff era, which began 10 years prior.

All in all, seven of the champions during the first 17 seasons of the playoff era and two of the champions during the first seven seasons of the Championship 4 era would have also won the championship based on points alone, assuming all other things remain equal.

Of course, this is nothing but a what-if scenario; under alternate formats, there are other things which must be considered when it comes to how each competitor races, including but not limited to a driver’s willingness to take chances to win races instead of settling for solid point-scoring events.

But for the sake of this article, we are going to focus only on what we know: the number of points scored.

Here is a list of the 17 NASCAR Cup Series champions from 2004 through 2020.

Year – Driver: Championship #
2004 – Kurt Busch: 1
2005 – Tony Stewart: 2
2006 – Jimmie Johnson: 1
2007 – Jimmie Johnson: 2
2008 – Jimmie Johnson: 3
2009 – Jimmie Johnson: 4
2010 – Jimmie Johnson: 5
2011 – Tony Stewart: 3
2012 – Brad Keselowski: 1
2013 – Jimmie Johnson: 6
2014 – Kevin Harvick: 1
2015 – Kyle Busch: 1
2016 – Jimmie Johnson: 7
2017 – Martin Truex Jr.: 1
2018 – Joey Logano: 1
2019 – Kyle Busch: 2
2020 – Chase Elliott: 1

So what would the above list look like on points alone and no playoff resets, using each season’s respective regular points format?

Year – Driver: Unofficial Points Championship # (Actual Championships – at the time)
2004 – Jeff Gordon: 5 (4)
2005 – Tony Stewart: 2 (2)
2006 – Jimmie Johnson: 1 (1)
2007 – Jeff Gordon: 6 (4)
2008 – Carl Edwards: 1 (0)
2009 – Jimmie Johnson: 2 (4)
2010 – Kevin Harvick: 1 (0)
2011 – Carl Edwards: 2 (0)
2012 – Brad Keselowski: 1 (1)
2013 – Jimmie Johnson: 3 (6)
2014 – Jeff Gordon: 7 (4)
2015 – Kevin Harvick: 2 (1)
2016 – Kevin Harvick: 3 (1)
2017 – Martin Truex Jr.: 1 (1)
2018 – Kyle Busch: 1 (1)
2019 – Kyle Busch: 2 (2)
2020 – Kevin Harvick: 4 (1)

Some of the key differences to note here are the fact that Jeff Gordon, not Jimmie Johnson, would be tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the all-time championships list with seven titles, and Johnson would only be a three-time champion.

Harvick, really a one-time champion, would be a four-time champion. No other drivers would have between four and six titles, meaning he would rank fourth on the all-time list behind Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon.

The Busch family would have two championships instead of three, with Kurt losing his only title. Only one of Kyle’s two titles, however, would have been won when he actually won.

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Additionally, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards would both be two-time champions instead of the former being a three-time champion and the latter having retired without having won a title. Joey Logano would not be a champion, and neither would Chase Elliott.

Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are the only champions — legitimate champions or unofficial points champions (both are legitimate champions) — during this 17-year span that have not had their resumes affected whatsoever by these differences.

But the fact is, playoffs have been used, and nothing is going to change that, so none of this truly matters.

And most importantly, Elliott, not Harvick, is slated to enter the 2021 season as the reigning champion.

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Will the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion be the driver who would scores the most pure points? The 36-race season is scheduled to last from Sunday, February 14 at Daytona International Speedway until Sunday, November 7 at Phoenix Raceway.