The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season concluded with Chase Elliott bagging a maiden title. This came after the Hendrick Motorsports driver came out on top in the season finale at Phoenix after the Playoffs. With this playoff system, the Top 16 were in championship contention until they were steadily whittled down.
Soon, everything boiled down to a showdown between the final four drivers. Chase Elliott was up against Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Denny Hamlin, and he emerged victorious. However, one has to wonder, what if the playoff system was not in force?
The Championship 4 concept was conceived in 2014 as part of a new playoff format. Since then, at least seven titles have been decided with the help of this system. Meanwhile, the actual playoff format was introduced all the way in 2004. However, if NASCAR didn’t employ this system, and everything was point-based, how would things change?
Under the current format, Kurt Busch emerged victorious in 2004. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart wrapped up his second title in the following year. Then, from 2006 until 2010, came a period of dominance of Jimmie Johnson. For the 2011 season, Tony Stewart was back at it once again with a third title. In the following year, Brad Keselowski took his maiden Cup Series title, with Jimmie Johnson taking the sixth title in 2013.
Kevin Harvick seized his maiden title in 2014, with Kyle Busch grabbing his first title in 2015. However, in the following year, Johnson was back at it again, with a record-equalling seventh title. The next three years witnessed Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano taking maiden titles and Kyle Busch grabbing a second. Finally, everything culminated with Chase Elliott getting his maiden title.
In an alternate universe without the playoffs, Jeff Gordon would have taken his fifth Cup Series crown in 2004. Tony Stewart would still be the 2005 champion and Jimmie Johnson in 2006. However, Jeff Gordon would have taken his tally to six in 2007. In the following year, Carl Edwards would have been the champion. Jimmie Johnson would have taken his second title in 2009, with Kevin Harvick’s maiden title coming a few years early.
In 2011, Carl Edwards would have taken his second title, while Brad Keselowski would still be the 2012 champion. For the 2013 Cup Series season, Jimmie Johnson would have taken his third title. Jeff Gordon would have had his last hurrah with his 7th cup title, tying him with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
For the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Kevin Harvick would have taken back-to-back Cup Series crowns. However, Martin Truex Jr. would have prevented a hat-trick. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch would have been the next consecutive winner for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Finally, Kevin Harvick would have wrapped up the 2020 title.
This would mean that Harvick would have been fourth in the all-time list behind Petty, Earnhardt, and Gordon. Sadly for the Buschs, Kyle would have been the sole champion with his two championships.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards would have joined the double champion club. Meanwhile, poor old Joey Logano and Chase Elliott would still be hunting for a maiden title. Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are unaffected by this change, to their delight.
However, all this falls under what could have been in NASCAR history. The past cannot be altered, so NASCAR fans have to make do with what they have.