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The Complete History of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship

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Jared Turner

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By Jared Turner

From the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series season of 1949 through 2003, the champion of the sanctioning body’s premier racing division was simply the driver who accumulated the most points over the entire season.

Then came 2004, the year everything changed. That’s when then-NASCAR chairman Brian France introduced what was initially known as the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup – a 10-race, season-ending playoff featuring the 10 drivers who amassed the highest point totals over the 26-race “regular season.”

Since 2004, NASCAR’s top series has continued to determine its champion based on the outcome of a 26-race regular season, followed by a 10-race playoff, but the way drivers qualify for the playoffs and remain in championship contention during the playoffs has changed dramatically.

Also different these days is the number of drivers who are playoff eligible at the end of the regular season and the way points are awarded throughout the season, including in the final race.

But before taking a closer look at how the NASCAR Cup Series championship format has evolved in the past 20 years, let’s first consider why NASCAR decided to add a playoff in the first place – and its immediate impact on the sport.

The Impetus for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs­­­­­­­­­­­­

When Brian France rolled out the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup concept ahead of the 2004 season, the time seemed right for major change in the sport.

Not only did NASCAR’s premier division have a new title sponsor in Nextel that replaced R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which had been the sport’s primary backer since 1971, but NASCAR was looking for a spark on the heels of an anticlimactic 2003 season in which Matt Kenseth captured the Cup Series championship despite collecting only one win — which came early in the year.

It had also been several years since a Cup Series season had culminated in a super-close championship battle, which prompted France – the grandson of NASCAR founder William H.G. “Big Bill” France – to institute sweeping change in how the Cup Series crowned its champion.

Bear in mind, of course, that many of the sport’s most legendary drivers – including Richard Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt, the late David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison – won all of their titles under a championship format that involved no playoff.

But France believed it was time to shake things up; Nextel was on board with his ideas, and with that came the beginning of a new era for the sport that has lasting implications even now, nearly two decades later.

The Evolution of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs­­­­­­­­­­­­

The format of the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup – which later became known as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and eventually, quite simply, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs – couldn’t have been more straightforward.

The driver with the most points at the end of the regular season began the playoffs with 5,050 points, followed by the second-place driver at 5,045 points, the third-place driver at 5,040 points, etc., all the way down to the 10th-place driver with 5,000 points.

Initially seeded seventh among the 10 playoff qualifiers and 35 points out of the championship lead, Kurt Busch won the opening race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and used that momentum as a springboard to a championship that he wasn’t favored to capture when the playoffs commenced.

And Busch didn’t just win the 2004 championship, he won it by a mere eight points – then the closest margin in the history of NASCAR’s premier division – as the battle for the title went down to the wire among Busch and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The championship fight wasn’t nearly as climactic in either of the next two seasons, however, when Tony Stewart (35 points) and Johnson (56 points) prevailed by much more comfortable margins than Busch, whose championship points lead basically amounted to just two positions on the race track.

Looking to infuse more excitement into the playoffs, NASCAR tweaked the playoff format for its top division ahead of the 2007 campaign by expanding the field of championship contenders from 10 to 12 drivers and resetting each playoff driver’s point total to 5,000 points – plus 10 bonus points for every victory they earned during the regular season. As a result of this change, race wins took on additional importance and loomed larger in the ultimate championship outcome.

But after four more years of Johnson championships from 2007 through 2010 – a stretch in which Johnson became the first driver in NASCAR history to win four, and then five, consecutive Cup Series titles – the sanctioning body modified the playoff format for the second time in its seven-year existence.

Beginning in 2011, the championship field consisted of the 10 drivers with the most points at the end of the regular season, plus two “wild card” drivers. These last two drivers were those outside of the top 10 with the most wins, as long as they finished the regular season no worse than 20th in the standings.

If no driver in points positions 11-20 went to Victory Lane during the regular season, the 11th– and 12th-place drivers in points would make up the remainder of the playoff field. Along with this change in playoff format, NASCAR greatly simplified the way points are awarded in each race.

Abandoning the convoluted points structure that had been in place since 1975, NASCAR announced the winner of each race would collect 43 points for finishing first. In addition, the top finisher would earn three bonus points for winning. Meanwhile, the race runner-up would earn 42 points for finishing second, third-place would get 41 points, etc., all the way down to one point for the driver who finished last.

In addition, competitors could earn one point for leading a lap and another point for leading the most laps, with 48 points being the maximum number of points available to a driver (if they won and led the most laps).

Also new in 2011, NASCAR revealed that drivers would carry three bonus points into the playoffs for each regular season victory (instead of the previous 10 points) and be seeded accordingly, but the 11th– and 12th-place drivers – the “wild cards” – would receive no bonus points for wins.

While the revised format produced mixed results over its three-year existence, it did yield what remains the closest championship battle in NASCAR history when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards for the 2011 Cup Series title on the basis of a tiebreaker. The two drivers both finished the season with 2,403 points, but Stewart was crowned champion by virtue of having five wins to Edwards’ one. Essentially, it all came down to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Stewart edged Edwards, the runner-up, for the win.

That one position on the race track was ultimately the difference between who came out on top. However, despite the new-for-2011 format delivering a championship tussle for the ages, it was short-lived.

In 2014, NASCAR made its most sweeping changes yet to the playoff structure and the way it crowns the Cup Series champion. This happened with the expansion of the playoff field from 12 to 16 drivers, all seeded based on number of regular season wins, which continued to be good for three bonus points entering the playoffs.

An arguably even bigger twist that originated in 2014 was the inclusion of three elimination rounds. These three rounds – originally known as the Challenger Round, Contender Round, and Eliminator Round, respectively – were and continue to be followed by a one-race, “winner-take-all” championship event where four drivers known as the Championship 4 compete straight up for the title. The highest finisher among the quartet of finalists is declared the champ, regardless of where they finish in the race.

However, in each of the nine seasons, since NASCAR adopted a playoff elimination format and Championship 4 race for its top series, the champion has always won the final event, with the other championship finalists typically not far behind in the finishing order – making for several drama-filled finales.

Since 2014, a win in any playoff round has automatically advanced a driver to the next round, and four drivers have been eliminated in each round leading up to the championship race, which Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted from the inception of the playoffs in 2004 through 2019.

Beginning in 2020 – and continuing through at least 2024 – Phoenix Raceway has served as the site of the championship round.

NASCAR most recently made major adjustments to the Cup Series playoff format in 2017, thanks in large part to the debut of stage racing whereby most races are broken into three distinct stages separated by competition caution periods.

The winner of each of the first two stages collects one “playoff point” and each race winner pockets five playoff points, making a total of seven playoff points up for grabs in the vast majority of the races. The driver with the most playoff points at the end of the regular season enters the playoffs atop the standings, followed by the driver with the second-highest playoff point total, etc. Aside from playoff points, all 16 drivers start the playoffs with a baseline of 2,000 points.

Drivers can continue to pile up playoff points through the first three rounds, adding to their regular season playoff point totals. Playoff points spill over to each new round – except the championship round – if a driver remains in the championship hunt.

The driver who leads the standings after 26 races is designated the “regular season champion” and starts the playoffs with an extra 15 playoff points by virtue of this accomplishment. The rest of the top-10 drivers in points at the regular season’s end are awarded playoff points on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.

The regular season champion is the driver who’s accrued the most “race points” – not playoff points – over the first 26 events. In races that have three stages, a driver can leave with a maximum of 60 race points – 40 for the race win and 10 for winning each of the first two stages. Race points are handed down to the top 10 finishers in each of the first two stages on a descending 10-1 scale. The second-place finisher at day’s end gets 35 race points, with third-place collecting 34, fourth-place being awarded 33, etc., all the way down to the 36th-place finisher. Drivers who come home in positions 36-40 all earn one race point for their finish (NASCAR reduced the size of the field for a Cup Series race from 43 drivers to 40 drivers in 2016.).

Since 2017, the first three playoff rounds leading up to the championship round have been known as the Round of 16, Round of 12, and Round of 8, respectively.

As has been the case since 2014, the playoff field is made up of full-time drivers who win at least one race in the regular season. If there are fewer than 16 different winners in the first 26 events, the rest of the playoff field – or grid, as it’s sometimes known – is filled out by the drivers who finished the regular season highest in points but failed to find their way to Victory Lane. Similarly, those who advance from one playoff round to the next are a combination of drivers who’ve won a race in the previous round and drivers who didn’t win in the last round but finished the round with the highest point totals.

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Jared Turner

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