NASCAR’s season finale is a must win for title hopefuls

Christopher Bell(20) and Kyle Larson(5) are two of the four drivers racing for a championship in PhoenixChristopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and William Byron will enter Sunday’s ‘Cup Series Championship’ at Phoenix Raceway on equal footing with whoever finishes highest among those four earning the NASCAR Cup Series title.

Back in 2014, the NASCAR first began using the Playoff format in which sixteen drivers compete with three separate cuts occurring over the final ten races of the season to narrow the field of title contenders to four going into the season finale. The Championship 4 then battle in the last race with the highest finisher among that quartet being crowned the champion.

All any driver among the four has to do to in order to go down in history as a NASCAR champion is to beat three other competitors. In theory, someone could be awarded the big trophy at the end of the season by finishing 30th in the last race on the schedule as long as the other three finished behind him.

But over the entire history of that format, the eventual champion has not only simply finished higher than his three competitors but also ahead the entire field. In every case over the past nine seasons, the driver who earned the crown also won the season finale.

Beginning with Kevin Harvick in 2014 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a string of race winners went on to claim the ultimate trophy. Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kyle Busch again each celebrated a Cup Series championship from victory lane in south Florida.

When NASCAR moved its finale to Phoenix Raceway in 2020, that trend continued with Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Logano each claiming the top prize in the Arizona dessert.

In one sense, it has been a remarkable stretch of title contenders winning those events. At the same time, those drivers earned a place in the Championship 4 because they have been good all season long and that doesn’t change just because it happens to be the last race of the year. Also, there seems to be an unwritten rule among those drivers not in the mix to avoid causing an issue for those who are.

Just this year, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series began using what it called the ‘Chase for the Championship’. Under the conditions laid out for that format, the top-4 in points leading into the final race on the schedule, the Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway, entered that race on equal terms with the highest finisher among them grabbing the glory.

Unlike in NASCAR, the highest finisher among the four championship hopefuls did not win the DTWC. Hudson O’Neal claimed the crown but was just edged at the finish line by Brandon Sheppard, who does not even race full time on the Lucas Oil Series.

Even though he did not win the race, O’Neal still did what he had to do by besting Devin Moran, Ricky Thornton Jr. and Jonathan Davenport.

With the Lucas Oil scenario in mind, winning a championship without winning the finale is certainly a possibility. Might this be the year in which that actually happens in the NASCAR Cup Series or is this race a must win?

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