Despite the fact that the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs were implemented in 2004, there are three champions during that 20-year span that have been unaffected by the changes.
Throughout every NASCAR season since 2004, there has been a debate about whether the playoffs deserve a place in the sport.
The 2003 season remains the most recent season to crown a champion without the use of a postseason format, and it appears that this will be the case for a long, long time, despite calls from some fans to go back to points and points alone.
The current Championship 4 elimination playoff format was introduced back in 2014, with further modifications, including the addition of stage racing and thus additional playoff points, beginning in 2017.
Every year, NASCAR fans look at points alone to determine the “what-if” factor: who would be the champion without the playoff resets?
Of course, there are other factors to consider that can’t be calculated by looking at points totals, such as what decisions would be made late in races by drivers going for wins rather than simply settling for solid finishes — or vice versa.
But with all other things being equal, there are just three champions throughout the first 20 seasons of the playoffs who have not been affected whatsoever by the various playoff formats/points resets (when using the given points system for each respective season).
Those three drivers are Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Larson.
Keselowski won the 2012 championship, Truex won the 2017 championship, and Larson won the 2021 championship. Under the 2012 points format, Keselowski would have won the 2012 title without the playoff format as well. Under the 2017 points format, the same can be said for Truex, and under the 2021 points format, the same can be said for Larson.
Not only that, but none of these three drivers would have won any of the other championships during this 20-year span, whether playoff resets were included or not.
As for every other NASCAR Cup Series champion during this era, they have been somewhat affected by the playoff resets.
Only eight of the 20 championships during this era would have been won by the same driver either way.
2004 champion Kurt Busch would not have won a title on points alone. Neither would two-time champion Joey Logano or 2023 champion Ryan Blaney. 2020 champion Chase Elliott would have, but it would have come in 2022, not 2020.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson would be a three-time champion. Three-time champion Tony Stewart would be a two-time champion. Kyle Busch would still be a two-time champion, but with his 2015 title instead coming in 2018.
2014 champion Kevin Harvick would be a four-time champion, although his lone true championship ironically wouldn’t be one of those four. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who didn’t win a single title during this era, would be a seven-time champion.
Carl Edwards, who never won a title, would be a two-time champion, and William Byron, who is also not a champion, would be set to enter the 2024 season as the reigning champion.
Interestingly, Denny Hamlin still wouldn’t have a championship to his name.
Of course, this is all practically meaningless, since the simple fact is that playoffs were used for each of these 20 seasons. There is no “other champion” like some fans still like to believe. But for Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Larson, they don’t even have to consider the “what-if” scenarios that many fans ponder; nothing has changed for them — yet.