NASCAR sees nine-year streak brought to screeching halt

NASCAR championship, Phoenix Raceway (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NASCAR championship, Phoenix Raceway (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Ross Chastain dominated the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season finale, becoming the first non-champion to win the clincher in the Championship 4 era.

After the first 10 seasons of NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, NASCAR switched things up in 2014 by introducing a round-by-round format which concludes with the Championship 4, where the highest finishing driver among the four remaining title contenders is crowned champion.

From 2014 to 2022, the winner of the season finale was the champion. In fact, on two occasions, the championship contenders have finished first through fourth place in that race, with that happening in 2018 and 2020.

But Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain brought an end to that nine-year streak, becoming the first driver of the Championship 4 era to win the season finale despite not being championship eligible.

The Xfinity Series and Truck Series had already seen this scenario unfold since their Championship 4 formats were implemented in 2016. It happened in the Xfinity Series in 2017, and it happened in the Truck Series in 2017, 2019, 2021, and then again on Friday night.

But it had never happened in the NASCAR Cup Series before Sunday.

Chastain, who made it to the Championship 4 in his first season behind the wheel of the No. 1 Chevrolet for the Justin Marks and Pitbull-owned team last year, was eliminated in this year’s round of 12. His Sunday victory made the 2023 season his second consecutive multi-win season.

But he didn’t just win Sunday’s 312-lap race around the four-turn, 1.058-mile (1.703-kilometer) Avondale, Arizona oval; he dominated it. After starting in eighth place, he worked his way up to the lead in the second stage and led 157 of the final 196 laps.

He even withstood contact from a frustrated Ryan Blaney to maintain the lead. The Team Penske driver ended up becoming the first driver in Championship 4 history to win the title despite not winning the season finale, as he ultimately placed second.

In the long run, he was certainly okay with that, even though he felt that Chastain was holding him up as he tried to build his gap over Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron before the final caution.

He simply needed to beat Larson and Byron to win his first title; Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell, the only driver to make the Championship 4 in both 2022 and 2023, was already out of the race and thus title contention following a brake rotor failure on his No. 20 Toyota.

With his runner-up finish, Blaney finished ahead of Larson and Byron in third and fourth place, respectively.

Of course, as you would expect, most of the post-race attention was directed toward Blaney as opposed to Chastain, just as we have seen in the Xfinity Series and the Truck Series in the past — and even other series such as IndyCar and Formula 1, which use season-long championship format.

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Blaney led just two laps of the race, an all-time low for a champion in the Championship 4 era. Larson, who was the top Championship 4 driver until Blaney made a late pass for second place, never led, while Byron dominated the early stages and led 95 circuits before ultimately fading back.