The four title contenders in the Cup Series Championship 4 have finished 1-2-3-4 only twice—2018 at Homestead and 2020 at Phoenix.
In the Truck series, only twice in seven years have two of the four title contenders finished first and second, last year and in 2020.
Christopher Bell believes the playoff drivers are given breaks by the other competitors.
Winning a championship in NASCAR’s three national touring series sounds simple—finish ahead of the other three title contenders—but dealing with the other drivers’ agendas complicates the equation.
“I don’t see them not going for a win,” Justin Allgaier, who is in his sixth Xfinity Series Championship 4, says about non-title contenders. “In the moment, I’m gonna have to be super aware of what’s at stake (for each driver).
“I have to go through my notebook of drivers, and I have to catalog every driver. I have to know what’s at stake for them, what their alliances are, what they’re looking at next year. There’s a lot more than just going out there and making a handful of laps and trying to go fast. You’ve got to know the whole big picture and I think that’s what is different in today’s day and time versus five or 10 years ago before people really understood this format. Now you have to do a better job of being in the moment and being really aware of your surroundings.”
Since NASCAR instituted the championship four format in its Cup Series in 2014, the four title contenders have finished 1-2-3-4 only twice—2018 at Homestead and 2020 at Phoenix. However, the champion has won all nine races since the format was started and two of the four have finished 1-2 in seven of the nine races.
Last year wasn’t the case when the four seeking the championship finished first (Joey Logano), third (Ross Chastain), 10th (Christopher Bell) and 28th (Chase Elliott).
The Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series have produced a different storyline since the current playoff format was instituted in 2016. At no time, have the championship four finished 1-4 in the Xfinity or Truck series.
In Xfinity, two of the four have finished first and second in four of the seven races. In 2017 at Homestead, William Byron claimed the championship with a third-place finish, while Cole Custer secured the race victory.
In the Truck series, only twice in seven years have two of the four title contenders finished first and second, last year and in 2020. Twice the driver who won the championship has finished second, while the series champion has placed third on two occasions.
Ben Rhodes, the 2021 Truck champion who is in his third championship four, says how a title contender is raced depends solely on the other driver.
“If it’s a teammate of one of the other championship drivers … they race you really hard because they think they’re helping their teammate,” Rhodes says. “If it’s anybody else on the track, they race you normal, but certainly nobody cuts you any slack. That’s probably one of the biggest perils of being in this race is the other drivers. I look at them as almost obstacles or roadblocks. Not the ones in the championship four, because they’re the only ones I’m worried about. I look at the other drivers … as the only thing that can take away our championship.”
Bell has competed in the Championship 4 in all three series, and he says he hasn’t noticed the four title contenders being raced differently across Cup, Xfinity and Truck. However, he does believe the playoff drivers are given breaks by the other competitors.
“The biggest thing was last year in the Cup Series having three teammates that are really, really competitive … they probably cut more breaks than the rest of the field,” Bell says about his rookie season in the Cup championship four.
“I remember in the Truck series whenever I made the final four, (Noah) Gragson was my teammate and he raced me really respectful. So, I don’t think anything is much different between the three series.”
Allgaier believes that in the six times he has been in the championship four the “expectation or acceptableness of certain driving styles has probably changed significantly.”
“That’s not just here (Phoenix). That’s across the board,” Allgaier says. “You definitely have to up the aggression level. I think you’re gonna have to put yourself in those tough spots. I think you’re just going to have to take all the opportunities. I don’t know if that’s wrecking somebody, but I think you’re gonna have to squeeze three wide, you’re gonna have to use that apron, you’re gonna have to do all those little things that maybe in a spring race here at Phoenix you wouldn’t have done.”