Unlike most other racing championships, the NASCAR Cup Series awards two titles to drivers throughout the season. There is the overall champion that takes all the prestige, but the fight for the ‘second’ crown can’t be split with just three rounds to go.
What is the regular season champion?
The NASCAR Cup season is unusual, in that it is split into two distinct sections.
With 36 races on the calendar, it is cut in two with 26 races making up what is known as the regular season.
The remaining 10 events form the playoff system that whittles the 16 playoff drivers down to just four.
They then are the contenders to fight it out in the championship race for the title of NASCAR Cup Series champion.
To celebrate the best driver in the initial phase of the season – which now stretches between the two points races at Daytona – they are bestowed the crown of regular season champion.
Yes, it is a nice moniker, and looks good on the CV.
But claiming that accolade can literally make or break your quest for overall honours.
Since the latest update to the format in 2017, winning the regular season comes with a 15 point bonus through the playoffs.
In a championship often decided by less than a handful of points, the lure of the prize is clear.
But while you get the kick afforded by the points, drivers beware: consistency throughout the playoffs is essential.
In 2020, Kevin Harvick dominated on his way to the regular season crown, with seven wins.
The #4 Stewart Haas machine claimed a further two in the early stages, and his place in the Phoenix finale was a certainty.
However, in the playoff semi-finals, Harvick’s season fell apart.
He was left eight points outside the bubble after the Martinsville eliminator.
Every point counts.
The veteran vs the comeback kid
This season, the battle for the regular season crown is between a triple-Daytona 500 winning driver, and NASCAR’s rehabilitated fallen star.
Across the 23 points races run in 2021, Denny Hamlin’s remarkable consistency has had him at the top of the standings, since the second race.
This is all the more surprising when you factor in that Hamlin has yet to visit victory lane.
The #11 Joe Gibbs racer has finished outside the top 10 just seven times picking up 917 points.
Courtesy of his five stage wins, he also has five playoff points.
While Hamlin started the season like a train, Hendrick’s Kyle Larson’s recent purple patch has propelled him into contention.
At Darlington, race 12, Hamlin’s lead was 144 points. 11 races later, they are level.
Larson’s four wins and four second places have something to do with that as Hamlin strong start as tailed off.
Whereas Hamlin has just five playoff points, Larson has a hefty haul of 37.
You get one for a stage win and five for a race win.
With five race and 12 stage wins, the #5 machine is playing the long game.
Just padding out the playoff points, building a nice tally while occasionally destroying the opposition (see the Coca-Cola 600).
Caution for Hamlin
Firstly, it is important to note that Hamlin is still to officially qualify for the playoffs.
The only way to guarantee a slot is to win a race, but the 40-year-old is likely to make it through.
There have been 13 winners in Cup this season, with 16 spots up for grabs in the playoffs, with just three races left.
It is not impossible for three new drivers to take a win and bump Hamlin out.
With the unknown of the first race on the Indianapolis road course, the Michigan oval and the chaos of Daytona to come, Hamlin still won’t be sleeping as sound as he could.
But so vast is his points buffer, +287, to the current driver in the last ‘on-points’ transition spot, Tyler Reddick, Hamlin will not be knocked out on points.
What are they saying?
“I would suspect it’s going to take until the last lap at Daytona to figure this thing out,” mused Hamlin after Watkins Glen.
“Had this been a 100-point lead like it was earlier in the season, maybe you’re just relaxing a little bit and then all of a sudden have to turn it on right when the playoffs come on.
“This is pushing us to go all out every race.”
Larson concurs with his Toyota rival.
“Say he still had an 80-point lead or something.
“You could get lazy and not care as much and make mistakes, whether it be make a dumb move on restart or speed on pit road, which we’ve both done.
“But now it’s like every point matters to get those five extra bonus points.
“Keeping your mind strong and sharp through the regular season is important to where you don’t have to just flip a switch now when it comes playoff time and who knows if you’re mentally there.
“But I think for him and I both, we’ve been mentally there for a while now.
“I’m glad there’s a fun little regular season point battle, and I feel like in years past it’s kind of been a blowout come the last race of the points.
“To be tied with three races left is pretty cool.”
What to expect in the final three races
The first race of the remaining trio of events is part of the NASCAR/IndyCar double-header this weekend.
Cup will switch over to the road course – excellent news for Larson and his Hendrick Chevrolet squad.
Not only does the team boast the most successful road racer currently active (Chase Elliott) but Larson has scooped two win on them – Sonoma and at The Glen.
Michigan on August 22nd has typically been a Ford track in recent times, so no favouring either driver there.
Although Larson did take the last non-Ford win there back in his Chip Ganassi days of 2017.
And Daytona will be Daytona…