Amid Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Criticism, Here is How NASCAR Legend’s Cup Series Win Led to a Legacy-Defining Change to The Sport

The 2003 NASCAR Cup Series championship was a turning point in the history of the sport. The results of this season marked the first time that a driver won the championship by winning only a single race. This unexpected outcome led to a major change in the championship format, which had a lasting impact on the sport. Years later, several prominent NASCAR drivers, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr and Denny Hamlin also raised their voices against how NASCAR handles its championship rules.

Before 2003, the championship was determined by a points system. Which awarded points to drivers based on their finishing position in each race. Moreover, the driver who accumulated the most points over the course of the season was crowned the champion. However, this system had one major flaw: it placed a higher value on winning races than on consistently finishing in the top positions.

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However, it was only later Matt Kenseth‘s 2003 campaign exemplified this flaw. Despite finishing in the top five in 26 of the 36 races that season, Kenseth only won one race. However, he was able to secure the championship thanks to his consistent finishes. His championship victory sparked controversy and led many to question whether a driver who had only won a single race deserved to be crowned the champion.

What did NASCAR do to prevent such a thing from happening again?

In response to this controversy, NASCAR implemented a new championship format in 2004. The new system is known as the “Chase for the Cup.” It was designed to place a greater emphasis on winning races. Under this system, the top 10 drivers in the points standings after the 26th race of the season qualified for the “Chase.”

These drivers then competed in a series of 10 races, known as the “Chase races,” to determine the champion. The driver who accumulated the most points during the Chase races was crowned the champion.

The introduction of the new system fundamentally changed the way NASCAR championships were decided. It placed a greater emphasis on winning races and made the championship more competitive, as drivers had to consistently perform at a high level in order to qualify for the Chase. However, over the years, slight adjustments were made to this system.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin disagree with the championship four race

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The fact that in today’s era, almost half the field made it into the playoffs, seemed a bit unfair. This led to top running teams using the rest of the season more as a practice session to perfect their cars. All of it, however, would be fine. But it is how the final race takes place, irks many of the fans and drivers as well.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – SEPTEMBER 10: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Acumatica Toyota, walks the grid during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on September 10, 2022, in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Championship finale race is only one race to determine who is crowned the champion. Many times this can be called unfair since not everything is in the driver’s hand. Many things can also go wrong, such as pit problems and all. Lately, former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr and current Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Denny Hamlin, criticized the season finale race.

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Both drivers called out that having just one race would be deemed unfair to the competition. Suggesting that the championship four should be stretched out to at least a larger sample size, of say three races. The criticism coming from them makes sense since neither of them was able to win a championship in their careers. Despite being in the championship four times. It was always a stroke of bad luck that ended that decisive win for them.

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