Matt Kenseth’s Controversial Cup Series Title Is a Major Reason the NASCAR Playoffs Exist

Since 2004, NASCAR has crowned a Cup Series champion with a 10-race playoff system. Founded as “The Chase for the Championship” but often called “The Chase for the Cup” or simply “The Chase,” the system lost the “Chase” designation ahead of the 2017 season when NASCAR decided to go with just “Playoffs.” The NASCAR Playoffs have undergone several changes over the years, including an increase in the number of drivers competing for the championship, which is now 16. But it was one driver who essentially forced NASCAR to implement a playoff system in the first place, that being 39-time Cup Series winner Matt Kenseth.

Allow us to explain.

Matt Kenseth won the NASCAR Cup Series title in 2003 despite winning only one race

Matt Kenseth celebrates winning the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series points championship
Matt Kenseth celebrates winning the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series points championship | A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The 2003 NASCAR Cup Series (then called the Winston Cup) season was the fourth full season for Matt Kenseth and his sixth overall. It was his fifth year driving the No. 17 car for Roush Racing, and he was coming off an eighth-place finish in the points standings in 2002, the best of his young career.

Kenseth began the 2003 campaign with a 20th-place finish at the Daytona 500, but followed it up with a third-place finish at Rockingham. The following week, he took the checkered flag at the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line by more than nine seconds. It turned out to be his only victory of the year.

However, following a fourth-place finish the following week in Atlanta, Kenseth took the lead in the points standings and never relinquished it. He held the top spot for 33 consecutive weeks, breaking the record of 30 set by Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1980, and won the Cup Series points championship despite not winning a second race. Kenseth did, however, record 25 top-10 and 11 top-five finishes, and clinched the title in the penultimate race of the season at Rockingham, where he finished fourth.

Ryan Newman took the most checkered flags in 2003 with eight but only finished sixth in the points standings, 291 points behind Kenseth.

The NASCAR Playoffs began the following year, which many called ‘The Matt Kenseth Rule’

While Kenseth and Roush Racing were obviously thrilled with winning a NASCAR Cup Series points championship, there were plenty of people who didn’t feel the same way, most notably Roger Penske, the owner of Newman’s No. 12 Dodge. Penske questioned how Kenseth, or any driver for that matter, could win a title despite winning just one of 36 races on the Cup Series schedule. The 33 weeks Kenseth spent atop the standings was also a hot topic, which led to discussions within NASCAR on how all of this could be prevented from happening again.

And the answer was what we now know as the NASCAR Playoffs, which were introduced in 2004.

Dubbed by some as “The Matt Kenseth Rule,” the new playoff system placed an emphasis and a points premium on victories. The top 10 drivers at the end of the season would then compete in a 10-race playoff to determine a champion.

Now, NASCAR said that Kenseth’s championship was not the main factor in implementing a playoff system as it claimed it had been trying to adjust the points system to put more emphasis on victories since 2000. But as the system was introduced only a few months after Kenseth won the title, combined with Kenseth’s name being used in several press conferences and official press releases announcing the NASCAR Playoffs, many believe he was a major factor in the decision.

Kenseth finished in the top five of the points standings on six occasions before his retirement following the 2020 Cup Series season, but never won another title.

The playoff system has undergone several changes over the years

Since the NASCAR Playoffs began the year after Kenseth’s lone championship, the system has undergone several changes.

From 2004 to 2006, the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the lead earned a spot in the playoffs. In 2007, the 400-point provision was dropped, and the playoff field expanded to just the top 12 drivers in the standings.

In 2011, the field remained at 12, but included the top 10 in the standings and two “wild card” drivers. Specifically, the two drivers ranked anywhere from 11th to 20th in the standings who had the most regular-season wins made the field.

In 2014, the field was expanded to 16 drivers, who were chosen mostly on wins. If there were fewer than 16 drivers with victories, the field was rounded out using regular-season points. 2014 was also the year in which the knockout system was introduced.

In 2017, the regular-season points system was revised as races were split into three stages, with the top 10 in each stage receiving bonus points toward the championship.

Stats courtesy of Racing Reference