Denny Hamlin’s Big Idea Wouldn’t Fix the Championship 4, but at Least He’s Trying

He’ll be the first to admit it sounds like sour grapes, but Denny Hamlin isn’t wrong to question NASCAR’s Championship 4 format for determining season titles. Hamlin threw out fresh ideas on Thursday in Nashville ahead of the NASCAR awards banquet, and at least one needs to be adopted.

Denny Hamlin continues to chase that elusive first NASCAR championship

There’s no doubt the selection committee will vote Denny Hamlin into the NASCAR Hall of Fame a few years after his retirement. His 48 NASCAR Cup Series victories and 17 in the Xfinity Series have all but assured as much. That doesn’t mean he isn’t missing the most important word that could appear on his plaque: champion.

Hamlin finished third in points in 2006, his first full season in the Cup Series, and has added a runner-up finish and another third place since. Ross Chastain’s mad dash at Martinsville was all that kept the driver of the No. 11 Toyota from a fourth straight Championship 4 appearance.

Hamlin, 42, likely has at least three more cracks at the elusive first title if he desires. However, the way NASCAR conducts the championship battle could continue holding him back.

Don’t blame Denny Hamlin for not wanting to settle titles in Phoenix

Certain drivers excel at certain tracks. Nine of Kevin Harvick’s 60 victories have come at Phoenix Raceway. Kyle Busch has won as many Cup Series races, but only three have come at the Avondale, Arizona, track.

Denny Hamlin is acutely aware of how that works. A cursory glance at his results suggests he’d be thrilled if NASCAR ran all its races at Pocono, Martinsville, and Darlington. He’d be in David Pearson territory for career wins by now with a schedule like that.

The reason we cite Phoenix Raceway is that it hosts two races per season. One of them is the Championship 4, the 10th and final Cup Series race. Two seasons ago, Chase Elliott won the title there, with the other Championship 4 drivers – Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Hamlin – rounding out the top four finishers.

“My mom knew I wasn’t going to win the championship in 2020 because she flew on a flight with Coy (Gibbs, a Joe Gibbs Racing executive), and he said, ‘Yeah, we have no chance because we just aren’t good on these types of racetracks. So, we have zero shot,’” Hamlin said. “So, she’s like, ‘Oh. Well, that stinks.’

“And I knew we weren’t going to win. We just didn’t have the speed the other guys did.”

That’s the argument for rotating the final race among at least three or four tracks, each distinctly different.

Denny Hamlin wants to expand the Championship 4 schedule

Denny Hamlin, left, talks with Chase Elliott during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5, 2022. | Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Denny Hamlin, left, talks with Chase Elliott during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5, 2022. | Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

While careful to say we haven’t seen an undeserving series titlist, Denny Hamlin’s bigger point while speaking to reporters this week was that a one-race, winner-takes-all format for the Championship 4 is susceptible to fluke outcomes. He suggested the final phase of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs should consist of three races, similar to the first three rounds.

“I just think we’ve seen it come down to cautions from maybe a car that wasn’t even in the race. That shouldn’t affect the champions of the race. If you stretch it out over a three-race series, I believe that you’ll get more of the ‘right’ champion.”

Denny Hamlin

The most notable issue there is that it adds two more chances for misfortune for the Championship 4 drivers. A blown tire could put one car into the wall 10 laps into the first race, and a wreck could take out another contender 30 laps into the second race. Suddenly, the championship comes down to two cars in a field of 36, making it even less optimal than now.

If we gave Hamlin a do-over, he might focus on how NASCAR assigns too much value to regular-season wins and not enough to those earned in the playoffs. Even in a season of parity like 2022, every driver who won just once in 26 tries reached the playoffs, earning five playoff points in the process.

A possible alternative to the current Championship 4

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While victories in the first nine playoff races earn advancement to the next phase, the winners pick up just five additional points. If a driver who isn’t in the playoffs wins, then no one secures those five points.

A potential two-part solution:

  • Expand the playoff field from 16 cars to 20, thereby assuring more drivers make the field based upon points earned over a long regular season. It also changes the Championship 4 to a Championship 8.
  • Make playoff wins worth 12 or 15 points and guarantee that the highest-finishing playoff driver gets eight or 10 points even if he doesn’t win.

That adds urgency and drama to the first two transfer races, after which points are reset. It shakes up the standings, rewards drivers who consistently ran in the top 10 without multiple wins, and makes the final race more compelling with eight cars in the hunt.

Adding more winless drivers to the original playoff field runs the risk of crowning champions who reached Victory Lane just once or twice all year, but it also rewards exceptional consistency over 36 races.

That’s closer to the old points system that purists still crave while all but assuring that half a dozen cars will come out of the final restart of the final race with a shot at the championship.

Hamlin gets his goal – a winner based upon a broader body of work – and fans are guaranteed drams over the final 20 laps of a 10,000-lap season.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected]