NASCAR championships ‘viewed differently’ now?

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) /

Given the playoff and Championship 4 format that has been used in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2014, are championships viewed differently now? Denny Hamlin believes so.

Ahead of the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series season, a playoff format was introduced for the first time. There have been slight modifications to the format over the years, but the postseason is still around after 18 years, and there are no indications that this will change.

Perhaps the biggest change came ahead of the 2014 season, when the playoff format became a round by round playoff format featuring 16 drivers. The 10-race postseason culminates with a Championship 4 race in which the last four remaining drivers compete for the title.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin sits in a 16th place tie on the all-time Cup Series wins list with 48 wins, but he ranks second highest among drivers without a championship. The only driver he trails, Junior Johnson (50), never competed full-time.

Hamlin has said before that isn’t going to judge his career as a success or a failure on whether or not he wins a title.

A driver could technically win 35 of 36 races and not win the championship. A driver could also technically win the championship without winning a race, and a driver could technically win the championship with a 30th place finish in the actual point standings.

Perhaps the craziest possibility is that a driver could win 10 races and record 26 runner-up finishes — and finish 17th in the standings without a playoff berth.

Prior to his round of 8 elimination last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin is the only driver who had been championship eligible for 143 consecutive races, a fancy way of saying that he made it to each of the last three Championship 4s.

Before this coming weekend’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway, he hadn’t been ineligible to win the title since the 2018 season finale.

Earlier this season, we asked the 41-year-old Chesterfield, Virginia native whether he would rather finish his career with three 10-win seasons and no titles or 10 total wins over three seasons — but with a title.

“I would take the 30 wins over the one championship,” Hamlin admitted to Beyond the Flag. “To me, when you win week in, week out, that means that you are a championship driver.”

He backed up his stance by discussing the nature of the championship format.

“To win the championship, you only have to win one race,” he said. “That one race isn’t any harder or easier than the rest of them. So I would rather have triple the amount of wins because it means I was capable for 30 times. I think that puts me at mid-70 wins, right? That’s a number that you can’t deny what that accomplishment is.”

It is something that he has thought about before, however. And he also said that he wouldn’t trade his Daytona 500 wins for a title, as he believes titles are viewed differently in the modern era.

“I thought about it many times,” he continued. “I wouldn’t trade my three Daytona 500s for one championship, there’s just no way. I just think championships in general are viewed differently these days.”

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This year’s four Championship 4 drivers are Team Penske’s Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell, Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain, and Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott. The season finale is set to be broadcast live on NBC from Phoenix Raceway beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET this afternoon. Begin a free trial of FuboTV and don’t miss it!