NASCAR’s modern playoff format is odd, to say the least.
The series introduced a “postseason” system in the mid-2000s that reset points for the series’s top 10 contenders, ensuring a close finish. When that stopped guaranteeing close finishes, they went to a 16-car knockout format that ended with four cars guaranteed to each have a shot at a title. When that proved too unpredictable, they added “Playoff points” to normalize the standings in each round and to better reflect the regular season. For some reason, though, they kept the elimination format and the Championship 4 finale.
That means four drivers once again enter Sunday with an equal shot at a championship. Two of those four, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr., come to the finale almost by default. They have easily been the second-best drivers at their respective elite teams, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, but they have combined for just six wins over the course of the 36-race season. Under a more traditional points system, both Elliott and Truex would have been mathematically eliminated from contention more than a month ago.
Elliott’s season has been a relative letdown after securing the 2020 championship, winning only on road courses this season. Truex has been notably excellent on the 750 horsepower, low downforce short intermediate tracks, having won three of the six races already held this year that share that style with Sunday’s finale at Phoenix, but he has been anonymous elsewhere. The pair are clearly the third and fourth best drivers in the field and can certainly win a title this weekend. But make no mistake, they are in the Championship Four only because the field must include four drivers.
The key contenders on Sunday are the two who put together the historic seasons. Those are Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, who would be separated by just 30 points in this race without a playoff system. Truex and Elliott both led nearly twice as many laps as the fifth-placed driver in laps led this season. Hamlin, at 1502 laps led, is about 650 ahead of Truex. Larson, at a breathtaking 2474, is nearly a thousand laps ahead of him.
Larson and Hamlin are at the head of what has been a year-long rivalry between Hendrick and Gibbs, two teams that have been among the best in the series since the 1990s. This year, that rivalry has largely played out in a very different balance of power at different tracks. At road courses and the 550 horsepower intermediates, Larson has been the unbeatable tip of an exceptional spear. He has a series-leading nine wins this year, seven of which have come at those two kinds of tracks. In the last round, he showed that dominance with two relatively effortless wins on those 550 horsepower intermediates in what is supposed to be the most difficult and competitive round of the season.
But Hamlin might have the advantage at Phoenix. These are the tracks where the JGR Toyota package has excelled, largely in the hands of Truex, but these are also the tracks where Hamlin is most historically successful. The modern repave of Phoenix reflects Richmond, another smaller, high-speed, flat oval with a strange trioval shape and a sand-worn track surface that shreds through tires. Richmond has been Hamlin’s second-best track (behind Martinsville) since he entered the series, and, as the Phoenix surface has aged, he has begun to take some of that excellence here, too.
Two of these tracks, Richmond and Darlington, have held races in this year’s playoffs. Hamlin won at Darlington, then finished second to teammate Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond in a race where the team benefitted more from Truex winning.
If Hamlin wins a title, it will be a monument to his consistency. This is the driver that finished just a few points behind Larson in the regular season standings with no wins, a record made up entirely of top fives. He has been undoubtedly the second-best in a field Larson has otherwise dominated, staying within contention at every step. In his third Championship Four appearance, and fourth year entering the final race with a mathematical chance to win a title, this seems it could be the year the three-time Daytona 500 winner finally takes his long-awaited place as a champion.
Truex, Elliott, Larson, and Hamlin each get their shot at a title on Sunday. That race airs at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.
From: Road & Track
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