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The 7 Worst NASCAR Cup Series Championship Defenses

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Joshua Lipowski

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Winning a Championship one year does not guarantee success the following season. Some drivers have had a difficult time recapturing the magic that allowed them to win a Cup Series Championship. Which NASCAR Cup Series title defenses were the worst in history?

Kurt Busch: 2005

Kurt Busch won two races and made the Playoffs in his Championship defending season in 2005, but he was never a serious threat for the Championship. However, the thing that puts this season on this list is that Busch never finished the season with Roush Racing. He was suspended for the final two races of the season after being charged with reckless driving during a race weekend at Phoenix in November of 2005. He also did not return to Roush Racing after the season, and he moved to Team Penske in the 2 car replacing Rusty Wallace in 2006.

Bill Elliott: 1989

Bill Elliott finally nabbed that elusive Championship in 1988, but his follow-up campaign was less than stellar. He had his worst season since running starting to full-time in the Cup Series in 1983. He had the fewest top-5s and top-10s of his career to that point, even though he won three races. He also finished outside of the top-5 in points for the first time in his full-time Cup Series career.

Tony Stewart: 2006

None of Tony Stewart’s three title defenses were particularly stellar, but his title defense in 2006 was by far the most disappointing. He won two races and was solidly in the top 5 in points at the halfway point of the season, but he stumbled down the stretch and missed the Playoffs. To make matters more bittersweet, Stewart went on to win three races in the Playoffs, leaving many to wonder what might have been had he made the big show.

Dale Earnhardt: 1992

From 1986 through 1995, Dale Earnhardt never finished worse than third in the points standings…except for 1992. Earnhardt suffered through an atrocious campaign in 1992 with only one win at the Coca-Cola 600, six top-5s and 15 top-10s and a 12th-place points finish. It was so bad that longtime crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine left at season end, but Andy Petree joined the team in 1993 as Earnhardt won his sixth Championship.

Kyle Busch: 2020

Kyle Busch won his second series Championship in 2019, but 2020 was a tough year for Busch. 2020 was a strange year with the pandemic throwing everyone in the world for a loop, including Busch seemingly. He was just a bit off for most of the year, and he nearly had his first winless season before winning at Texas in a rain-marred event in the fall.

Brad Keselowski: 2013

Brad Keselowski surprised many by winning the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series Championship, but he would fail to make the Playoffs in 2013. This was the first time a defending champion would fail to make the Postseason since Tony Stewart in 2005. Keselowski was in Playoff position late in the regular season, but four finishes outside of the top 10 to finish off the regular season left him on the outside looking in. However, he was able to salvage the season somewhat by nabbing his lone win at Charlotte during the Playoffs.

Dale Earnhardt: 1981

Yes, “The Intimidator” is on this list twice. After winning his first Championship in 1980, he went winless in 1981. Yes, he won zero races in 1980 which was the first of only two times he would do so in his full-time career. He would finish seventh in the series standings before finishing 12th in 1982. Two seasons later, however, in 1984, he joined Richard Childress, and the rest as they say is history.

Joey Logano’s 2023 season seems to be a candidate to be added to this list. Sometimes being the defending Champion does not lead to great results.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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