Four facts about the first four years of NASCAR’s elimination playoff

Logan Whitton/Harrelson Photography Inc.

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

As difficult as it is to believe, NASCAR’s elimination-style playoff format is already four years old. And much like the drivers that make up each postseason field, the sport’s modern playoff has seen a myriad of storylines throughout its early stages.

From consistent contenders to surprising underdogs, each year has brought it’s own unique blend of stats and takeaways, including four different Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions between Chevrolet and Toyota in the format’s first four years.

There are numerous trends to take note of after 40 elimination-style playoff races. Here are four observations that stand out.

1) Parity at the Top

If there’s one thing the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway has done with certainty, it’s add to the level of unpredictability and parity among the tour’s list of champions and contenders.

Four years into the new format, the Cup Series has already celebrated the same number of unique champions as it managed in the 10-year stint of the original Chase.

Fueled by the dominance of Jimmie Johnson, who earned six titles in the format’s 10 years, the original Chase for the Cup supplied only four different champions.

Kurt Busch won the inaugural title under the format in 2004. Tony Stewart bookended Johnson’s five-straight titles with championship runs in 2005 and 2011. Brad Keselowski followed with a run of his own in 2012, with Johnson adding a sixth trophy in the format’s final run in 2013.

By comparison the four-year stint of the modern elimination-style format has seen a different champion in each season, including three first-time champions in Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Attributing this sudden switch in parity to the format alone would be unfair to the teams that earned them. Harvick and Truex were each arguably the best drivers in the year of their title runs, and a similar argument could be made for Busch’s emotional run in 2015 – though he got a late start to the year after suffering injuries in an XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

Coincidentally, only Johnson’s run represents any sort of underdog championship, with the seven-time champion putting together a clutch postseason run and benefitting from a late crash between Joey Logano and Carl Edwards to surge to his first elimination-style title after a subpar regular season.

The elimination format and Championship 4 race does allow potential underdogs a shot at the title, and a few drivers have come close – Ryan Newman’s winless second-place campaign in 2014 comes to mind.

But thus far the ability to dominate and win has proven critical to championship success, and different names and teams have filled that role each season.

2) The Closer is the only consistent… Closer.

Kevin Harvick is the only driver to win in each of the past four playoffs. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Four years into the elimination format, only one driver has managed at least one win in each year’s postseason.

The inaugural champ. The Closer.

Kevin Harvick.

Harvick made history in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, earning a win at Charlotte Motor Speedway before driving off into the sunset with back-to-back triumphs at Phoenix Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway to close out the year with a championship.

While the Californian hasn’t been able to claim a second title in the three years since, he’s been a constant championship threat and presence in victory lane.

The 2007 Daytona 500 winner surged early with a win in the 2015 playoffs, claiming the Round of 16 finale at Dover International Speedway to jumpstart his championship defense. Though he failed to win again for the rest of the postseason, Harvick did finish the year with two runner-up results – falling just shy of beating Busch for the title.

Harvick’s third attempt at a title saw his only elimination before the Championship 4 to date, but the veteran still managed two victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway before his Round of 8 elimination.

While 2017 was Harvick’s quietest season in his tenure with SHR, the veteran again managed to close with a victory at Texas Motor Speedway that earned him a spot in the Championship 4.

All told, Harvick has won at seven of the 10 playoff tracks in the elimination format’s first four seasons – the best mark of any in the Cup Series field. His seven overall victories during the stretch are also tied with Joey Logano for the most of any Cup Series driver. .

Logano and Johnson had each managed wins in three-straight postseasons prior to 2017, but the slumps of both drivers through the summer and fall this year kept them out of victory lane to leave Harvick as the only consistent winner in the elimination era.

3) Consistent Contenders

A total of 27 different drivers have had the opportunity to compete for a Cup Series title in the elimination era, but only a select few have proven strong enough to make deep playoff runs in successive years.

During the current playoff point era, and especially before it, few things have mattered as much as consistent quality for the organizations and drivers that chase titles each year. With the small margin for error under the format, part failures, flat tires or involvement in crashes like ‘The Big One’ at Talladega have been all it’s taken for teams to see their playoff hopes come crumbling down.

It’s no surprise, then, that the sport’s most consistent teams and drivers have proven capable of sustaining deep postseason runs while their inconsistent foes fall by the wayside.

Only Joey Logano has managed to make multiple Championship 4 appearances without earning a Cup Series title. (Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

A whopping 18 drivers have been able to make the postseason multiple times, but only 11 have proven capable of making multiple trips to the Round of 8 — Keselowski, Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Logano, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Truex and Matt Kenseth

Of those 11 drivers, nine have been a part of at least one Championship 4. Only veterans Kenseth and Kurt Busch – the 2003 and 2004 Cup Series champions, respectively – have proven unable to make their way into the title race.

Just four drivers have earned multiple Championship 4 appearances: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Truex and Logano. Of those four, only Logano has failed to deliver a championship performance, losing out on a shot at the 2014 title due to a late pit road miscue and falling just shy of the 2016 championship after his involvement in a crash with Edwards.

Logano missed the playoffs outright after an encumbered victory at Richmond International Raceway and a summer slump this season. But if the Team Penske ace can make another deep postseason run, the early trends suggest that a title may be in his future.

4) Ending at The Top… And Leaving Room For New Blood

Through 40 races, the Cup Series playoffs have seen just 11 different winners. Of those victors, nine have won multiple races, with four (Harvick, Logano, Truex and Johnson) claiming five or more events each.

Perhaps a testament to their experience and longstanding talent, four drivers who appear to be done competing full time are included in the list of 11 winners — Gordon, Kenseth, Edwards and  Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

None of the seemingly-retired quartet have been dominant. Three of the four have just two playoffs wins, and Edwards retired with only one. But their presence on the list of winners and recent absence from the series would, in theory, imply that increased opportunity exists for new victors in playoff races.

Such was nearly the case this season. Only Kenseth carried the banner for the confirmed/potential retirees with a victory at Phoenix. Meanwhile drivers like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Newman showed potential at tracks like Martinsville Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

The dominance of Truex and Busch ultimately kept any newcomers from making the leap to victory lane, but a new year in 2018 should provide ample opportunity to get the job done.

As for the best candidates – look no further than the power teams.

Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing. Hendrick Motorsports. Stewart-Haas Racing. Furniture Row Racing.

Those five organizations have combined to take every playoff race in the elimination format to date, leaving outsiders like Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing watching on from pit road as they celebrate victories when the postseason arrives.

Should that remain the same, a “Power 5” driver like Elliott, Blaney, William Byron, Kurt Busch or Erik Jones will be the most likely to become the next playoff victor.

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