Don't Blame Shenanigans for NASCAR's Uncanny 8-Year Streak at Championship 4

Not even the sanctioning body and its officials would be able to orchestrate what's played out each of the last eight years in the finale.

auto, autos, car, cars, nascar, don't blame shenanigans for nascar's uncanny 8-year streak at championship 4
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  • NASCAR’s Championship 4 format calls for the highest finishing driver among the Championship 4 qualifiers at the season finale to be crowned champion.
  • That means the series champion could finish first, 10th, 20th or even 33rd this week at Phoenix, so long as the other three qualifiers finish behind him.
  • Which begs the question, is it all just a crazy coincidence that in the last eight years, the Cup champion just happened to win that final race of the season?

    Since 2014 NASCAR has crowned its Cup Series champion using a system unique in all motorsports. Four drivers who have slogged through a 16-driver, four round, 10-week, elimination-style “tournament” race for the title in the season-ending Championship 4 showdown.

    The idea is simple: the one who beats the other three is the champion, regardless of where they finish overall. In theory—although it’s truly unimaginable—it’s possible for someone to have an 0-for-35 season, finish 33rd in the last race and still be the champion.

    Strange, But True

    Almost as strange is this trivia: every champion in the eight years under this system has won the final race at Homestead or Phoenix. He didn’t have to win it; it just worked out that way. And except for Kyle Larson finishing second to champion Jimmie Johnson in 2016, no “outside” driver has made a serious run at winning any of the six finales at Homestead or the most recent two at Phoenix. In seven of eight races, the winner and runner-up were among the Championship 4.

    auto, autos, car, cars, nascar, don't blame shenanigans for nascar's uncanny 8-year streak at championship 4

    Kyle Larson kept the strange streak of Championship 4 winners alive last year at Phoenix.

    Sean GardnerGetty Images

    Coincidence, or is it simply a matter of the best of the best doing everything (mostly) right just when it’s needed the most? And before you suggest any NASCAR-created shenanigans, it’s folly to think the sanctioning body and its officials would be able to orchestrate that eight-for-eight run. Too many moving parts and pieces would have to come together and too many corporate decisions would have to be made. In truth, it’s simply been a somewhat-unfathomable set of circumstances for eight consecutive years.

    But no question about it, the championship race isn’t just another race. Teams will get more practice time that usual and the Championship 4 drivers will get the first four pit stall selections. If tradition holds, the 32 drivers not involved in the championship hunt know their place. If not, they’ll be reminded.

    “Coming from somebody who’s been on both ends of that, when I see a guy coming who’s in the Final 4 I’m not going to put up the fight I probably would on another weekend,” Elliott said early this week. “I feel there’s a respect level for people who have earned the spot. Being here is very tough; it’s a great privilege to be part of that Final 4 and I think all the drivers and teams recognize that.

    “I know that when I haven’t been in the Final 4, I’ve always given a little more respect to the guys who were. I feel like the last couple years I’ve received that same mentality and respect from my competitors for being a part of it, for being fortunate enough to be one of the championship drivers.”

    ‘Every Driver Had His Own Agenda’

    Long-retired owner/driver Ricky Rudd recalls officials “suggesting” that non-championship drivers be careful around championship drivers in each season’s last race. “That happened as long as (33 years) I raced,” he said. “It was commonplace for the race director to remind everybody who the championship drivers were and that we should watch out for them. I remember one official saying in a joking tone—but you got the message—that if you hit one championship driver, you’d better hit the other ones, too.

    auto, autos, car, cars, nascar, don't blame shenanigans for nascar's uncanny 8-year streak at championship 4

    Ricky Rudd won 23 NASCAR Cup races in a season that spanned 33 years.

    Rainier EhrhardtGetty Images

    “The thing was, though, every driver had his own agenda. It wasn’t just the one or two drivers racing for the championship, it was drivers who needed to gain positions for Winner’ Circle bonus money or a sponsorship deal or to get top-five or top-ten in points. They wanted us to look out for the championship drivers, but the rest of us needed to finish as good as we could.”

    Brett Bodine was a driver, team owner, and NASCAR official for years. He distinctly remembers Dick Beaty addressing the drivers’ meeting at Atlanta in the 1992 finale, when Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, and Davey Allison were fighting for the Winston Cup.

    “Dick stood up there in the scoring stand and gave that famous line, ‘If you hit one of those guys you’d better look around and go hit the other two,’ ” Bodine said. “Absolutely, we were told at every championship-deciding race to be mindful when we were around those guys. I’m sure it’ll be mentioned during the (virtual) drivers’ meeting at Phoenix.”

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