NASCAR drivers live one cut tire from disaster, as Kyle Larson can attest. Larson was leading on the final lap in the opener of the Pocono weekend doubleheader this summer when a tire went down on his No. 5 Chevy. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman roared by for the victory, with Larson finishing ninth.
NASCAR faces the prospect of a greater disaster next weekend in Phoenix if Larson doesn’t leave the season-ending race with the Cup Series championship.
Kyle Larson has absolutely owned the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021
Kyle Larson comes to Martinsville on Sunday riding his second three-race winning streak of the season. He has won nine points races plus the All-Star Race already in dominating the NASCAR Cup Series. He has also broken the record for laps led in a 36-race season.
Coming in the aftermath of a firing early in 2020 for using a racial slur during an online racing event, Larson’s season has been the most compelling story in U.S. sports since Tom Brady marched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory to earn his seventh ring.
Larson will undoubtedly be looking to earn his 10th points-race victory Sunday, but he has already landed his spot in the Championship 4 in Phoenix on Nov. 7, where he will be favored to match Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott’s title-winning performance of a year ago.
Kyle Larson had better win the NASCAR Cup Series title in Phoenix
NASCAR fans understand the playoff system, which cuts the field from 16 qualifiers to the Championship 4 over the course of nine races. The 10th playoff race at Phoenix is a race within a race for those four finalists, with the top finisher crowned the series champion.
Some sports fans only know the single-elimination format of the NFL playoffs and other sports. Thus, the sight of more than 30 cars with no chance of claiming the championship mixed in with Kyle Larson and the three other finalists at Phoenix might be confusing.
That is especially true because Larson crushed the competition during the season. His nine victories are two more than the next two drivers on the list combined. As such, they will question how the guy who dominated the season didn’t win the overall championship if Larson doesn’t prevail in Phoenix.
Traditional media and social media will pile on, predictably, though it is worth noting that Denny Hamlin would be neck-and-neck with Larson under the old format of calculating season-long points. It could be a valid criticism, too. Formula 1 and IndyCar decide their championships through season points totals, and the F1 battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is captivating the international racing community this fall.
Making it worse, Kevin Harvick won nine races last season and didn’t even qualify for the Championship 4. Hamlin was next with seven wins, and he placed fourth in Phoenix. Two years before that, Joey Logano prevailed over Harvick and Kyle Busch, who had won eight races apiece.
Matt Kenseth’s 2003 championship compelled NASCAR to change
NASCAR used to rely upon season-long points standing to crown its champions. However, executives in the sport and at the TV networks wanted to get away from drivers potentially clinching the championship before the final race.
NASCAR began awarding more points for winning and unveiled The Chase after the Matt Kenseth debacle of 2003. That year, Kenseth won the third race of the season and no more after that. In fact, he didn’t even finish in the top three in any of the final 15 races, but Kenseth piled up 25 top-10 finishes. Ryan Newman won eight times but crashed out of five races (usually very early) and posted two other DNFs due to equipment failures, leaving him in sixth place.
The Chase expanded to the current 16 drivers in 2014, and stage points became part of the scoring in 2017, further complicating the math and contributing to somewhat unanticipated series titles for Chase Elliott and Joey Logano.
The fear this time is that anything short of Kyle Larson taking home the trophy won’t add up with the public.