The crowning of the NASCAR Cup Series champion took on a new dimension in 2014 when officials, seeking to juice the final weeks of the season with a new twist, decided on an elimination format, trimming the field as the playoffs progressed.
In part, the idea was designed to create “Game 7 moments,” or super-exciting finishes, as drivers competed to advance through the playoffs and, ultimately, to win the series championship.
The final races of the season since that change haven’t produced the electrifying, side-by-side, fender-banging finish between contenders that NASCAR might prefer, but most have seen emotional highlights.
NBC Sports ranks the eight championship races since 2014:
1. Martin Truex Jr., champion, 2017 — The Homestead-Miami Speedway victory lane excitement following Truex’s championship run reached an emotional peak rarely seen in NASCAR. Truex outran a charging Kyle Busch to win the race (and the championship) by .681 of a second, ending what had been a trying season for the Furniture Row team. Sherry Pollex, Truex’s long-time girlfriend, went through a tough battle with cancer, and Barney Visser, the team owner, suffered a heart attack, forcing him to miss the season finale.
3. Kevin Harvick, champion, 2014 — The title race produced tension in the closing laps as Harvick held off Ryan Newman, who was seeking his first win of the season, in a three-lap run to the finish. Harvick advanced from 12th to first over the final 15 laps, winning by .50 of a second.
4. Jimmie Johnson, champion, 2016 — Johnson led the race’s final three laps despite starting in the rear because of a pre-race inspection failure. The championship was Johnson’s seventh, tying him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in series history. Playoff contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano crashed late in the race.
5. Kyle Larson, champion, 2021 — Larson ended a spectacular 10-win season by outrunning Martin Truex Jr. by .398 at the finish.
6. Chase Elliott, champion, 2020 — Elliott’s car failed pre-race inspection, putting him at the back of the field for the start. That proved to be a non-issue as he won by race by 2.74 seconds over Brad Keselowski, sparking a wild celebration for the sport’s most popular driver in the first title race at Phoenix Raceway.
Ty Majeski was born 16 months after the April 1, 1993, plane crash that killed NASCAR Cup Series champion Alan Kulwicki.
It would be years later before Majeski, who grew up in Wisconsin racing go-karts, would hear of Kulwicki’s auto racing record and begin to appreciate what he had built from scratch while learning to race in the same Midwestern environment.
Kulwicki, also a Wisconsin native, won the 1992 Cup championship, scoring a significant upset by outrunning well-financed teams with his much smaller and nimbler outfit. An accomplished driver, Kulwicki turned down offers to race for other teams because he wanted to do things “my way,” as he often said. That became a theme of his rise through the sport.
Tragically, Kulwicki and three business associates died in a private plane crash barely four months after he had celebrated winning the 1992 title. They were flying to eastern Tennessee 30 for that weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In 2015, to honor Kulwicki’s legacy and to assist young drivers trying to follow Kulwicki’s path to racing’s top levels, his family started the Kulwicki Driver Development Program. Managed by Tom Roberts, Kulwicki’s public relations director at the time of his death, the program chooses seven (Kulwicki’s car number) short-track drivers each year and supports them with money ($7,777 to each driver), advice and contact support inside racing circles. The drivers compete in a point system, and the seasonal champion wins $54,439.
Majeski won the first KDDP championship in 2015 and remains its most successful graduate. Thirty years after Kulwicki’s death, Majeski is a full-time competitor in the Craftsman Truck Series and reached that circuit’s Championship Four last year, finishing fourth. With three top 10s this season, he is second in the standings.
Kulwicki made what he called the “Polish victory lap” a staple of his NASCAR wins. After taking the checkered flag, he took a lap in the opposite direction, waving to fans along the way. Other drivers, including Majeski, have adopted it.
“The Snowball Derby is such an exciting race, and the crowd was amped up,” Majeski said. “It was cool for people in Florida to recognize ‘the Polish victory lap’ from a guy from Wisconsin.”
Kulwicki famously labeled his NASCAR Ford an “Underbird” (modified from Thunderbird) to underline his status as an underdog driver. Majeski said his career has been much the same.
“I never had the luxury of landing a huge corporate sponsor or my family being able to fund my way through the levels,” he said. “I’ve just had to put myself in position to win races and surround myself with the best people I could with the resources I had. Sometimes I was at the right place at the right time, and some opportunities opened up. Some went well; some didn’t. My career has had ups and downs, but I have to pave my way.”
In 2015, when he won the Kulwicki Cup, Majeski won 18 short track races in 56 starts. That success led to a driver development deal with Roush Fenway Racing. He scored three top 10s in 15 Xfinity Series races for Roush, then moved on to Niece Motorsports in the Truck Series before landing with ThorSport’s Truck team in 2021. In 2022, his first full season, he won twice, scored 10 top fives and finished fourth in the point standings.
Majeski, now 28 years old, said he has tried to set himself apart from other rising drivers by being involved in all aspects of the team, much as Kulwicki was.
“I think what people maybe don’t understand about Alan is that, yes, he was a great race car driver, but he was so smart from every avenue it takes to be good in motorsports,” Majeski said. “From a business perspective, from an engineering standpoint, from a driving standpoint, he was able to take all his strengths and put it all together and put the correct people around him to be successful.
“In every NASCAR opportunity I’ve had, I’ve worked at the shop in some capacity. I’ve tried to show ambition and the want to get better and to get the team to sort of corral around me.
“Alan won a championship doing that, and I don’t know how you could be any prouder of what you accomplished than that. I was always very inspired by that. I sort of set my career and my mindset around what he did.”
The NASCAR Xfinity Series season has been an “alternate” one for driver Austin Hill.
Starting with a victory in the Daytona International Speedway season opener, Hill has won every other race, also scoring at Las Vegas and Atlanta. If that trend holds, Hill will win Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway after finishing 37th last week because of engine trouble at Circuit of the Americas.
Hill leads the points standings entering Richmond. Second is Riley Herbst, who has two top-five runs this year.
Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway
(All times Eastern)
START: The command to start engines will be given at 1:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled at 1:15 p.m.
PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 6 a.m. … The invocation will be given by Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice at 1 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by Nashville recording artist Celeste Kellogg at 1:01 p.m.
DISTANCE: The race is 250 laps (187 miles) on the .750-mile track.
STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 75. Stage 2 ends at Lap 150.
TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 1 p.m. … NASCAR RaceDay airs at noon on FS1. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. and can be heard at mrn.com. … SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.
FORECAST:Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 68 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of race.
The NASCAR on NBC analyst also sees how the dirt racing backgrounds of Reddick and Bell go well with the Next Gen car and could influence car owners to look there for future drivers.
“I think they’re that good, that talented,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell. “The background that they come from, I think, means a lot with the way they can handle these cars and what they can get out of them that others have a more difficult time getting.
“These are the two names, in my opinion, that as long as they stay with their current teams right now, they’re in the best position (to succeed). It’s going to be hard to dominate in a respect, but they’re going to win more often than a lot of others out there.”
Since the start of last year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway, Bell has two wins, tied with Reddick and William Byron and trailing only reigning champion Joey Logano’s three wins. Bell’s 10 top 10s in that 16-race stretch are more than any driver in the series in that time except Denny Hamlin, who has 11 top 10s.
“I think what we’ve seen from them already,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell, “they’re just getting to the point now that they have the experience to know what to expect in these races at all different types of tracks.”
Both drivers have nearly the same number of starts. Reddick has 116 Cup starts, Bell has 114. Both have four Cup wins. Among current full-time Cup drivers, only Brad Keselowski scored more wins (eight) in his first 116 Cup starts than Reddick and Bell.
The next three races set up well for Bell, starting this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished sixth or better in the last four Richmond races, including a runner-up result there last August.
Then comes the dirt race at Bristol. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites due to his extensive dirt racing background. Following Bristol is Martinsville. While Ross Chastain is remembered for his video game move the last time the series raced there, it was Bell who won the race. It marked the second time in the playoffs that Bell had to win to advance and did.
“The sky is definitely the limit,” crew chief Adam Stevens said of Bell after they won the Charlotte Roval playoff race last October. “He’s young. He’s getting better at a tremendous rate. He’s already extremely good. You can’t hide the talent that he has.”
The 27-year-old Reddick is making an impact with his new team. Toyotas struggled last year on road courses — even with Bell winning at the Charlotte Roval. Reddick had the dominant car at COTA, giving Toyota its first victory of the season.
“It’s why I went after him as early as I did,” said Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, after Reddick’s victory last weekend. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.
“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”
After making his series debut in 2013, Reddick ran a majority of the 2014 Truck schedule for Brad Keselowski’s team. He finished second in points in 2015 and won three races with Keselowski’s team before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2017.
Reddick went to JR Motorsports in 2018 and won the Xfinity championship. He repeated in 2019 but won the crown with Richard Childress Racing. He moved to RCR’s Cup program in 2020, breaking out with victories at Road America, the Indianapolis road course and Texas.
Bell’s path was groomed by Toyota Racing Development, taking him from the dirt tracks all the way to Cup. He claimed the 2017 Truck title and won 15 of 66 Xfinity starts (22.7%) in 2018-19, his two full-time seasons in that series.
Eventually, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota decided to replace Erik Jones with Bell in 2021. Bell had his breakout season last year, winning at New Hampshire, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.
Jarrett sees that talent in both Reddick and Bell, in part, from their dirt backgrounds.
“I really just believe it’s their car control is what I like the best,” Jarrett said. “You see someone like Reddick and what he did at COTA and what we saw him do a couple of times on road courses last year and the fact that he can make his car go that fast but yet not have to give up. That’s a talent that you’re able to do that.
“Christopher Bell does a lot of the same things. We see this come out on the short tracks and the difficult tracks where tire conservation means a little bit. It’s not that they’re trying to conserve the tire, it’s just their driving experience and driving abilities allow them not to abuse the tires on these cars as much as others are having to to try to match that speed that they have.”
The Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as the 10-point playoff penalty to each.
“A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward,” NASCAR stated.
The Appeals Panel agreed with NASCAR that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rules by modifying the hood louvers of each of its cars. NASCAR discovered the issue before practice March 10 at Phoenix and took the hood louvers after that practice session.
The Appeals Panel kept the the $100,000 fines and four-race suspension to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs for the infraction.
The Appeals Panel did not explain its reasoning for altering NASCAR’s penalty.
Hendrick Motorsports stated three key elements when it announced that it would appeal the penalties. Those three factors were:
“Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR
“Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers
“Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.”
NASCAR removed one word — or — so there was no option between a point penalty or fine but that such an infraction would constitute a point penalty and fine.
The question is if NASCAR will make any changes to the Rule Book this time to prevent the Appeals Panel from altering a similar penalty as the Hendrick infraction in such a way again — maybe something that more clearly states that an infraction found before a race is a point penalty.
This was only the second time in the Next Gen era that a team was penalized points for an infraction found before the race. The other case was when Cody Ware’s car failed pre-qualifying inspection four times. At the time, the Cup Rule Book stated that such an infraction was an L1 penalty. Such a penalty could result in a 20-point penalty, which Cody Ware and team owner Rick Ware received.
Another key question is what, if anything, will NASCAR do to improve quality control of parts that teams get from vendors.
“We as a company, we in the garage, every one of these teams here are being held accountable to put their car out there to go through inspection and perform at the level they need to,” he said March 17 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “The teams are being held accountable for doing that.
“Nobody is holding the single-source providers accountable at the level that they need to be to give us the parts we need. That goes through NASCAR’s distribution center and NASCAR’s approval process to get those parts, and we’re not getting the right parts.”
3. Single-file restarts
The overtime restarts last weekend at Circuit of the Americas have led to talk about if NASCAR should consider single-file restarts for all or some of its road courses.
Joey Logano discussed the notion on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week, saying: “There’s a lot of different opinions floating around. Probably the best I’ve heard is single-file restarts on road courses.”
The key issue is that at COTA and the Indianapolis road course both have a long straightaway for drivers to build speed before barreling into a sharp turn — at COTA it’s a hairpin left-hand turn, at Indy it’s a sharp right-hand turn.
Last year at Indy, Ryan Blaney was fourth on the last restart and got spun. While a single-file restart likely would have lessened the chances of such an incident, it also would have lowered Blaney’s chances to win because he would have been further away from the leader.
“The single-file restart is something I’ve been hearing around, and at some tracks I could see it working,” Blaney said, noting COTA and Indy.
He admits, that’s not the only idea.
“Do you move the restart zone?” Blaney said. “Do you give the leader more of an opening window of when to go? At COTA … do you give the leader the choice where he can go anytime between (Turn) 19 and the restart zone? So you kind of have like a short stint, slow down, turn, and then you have your long straightaway to where it kind of gaps everybody.
“You’re still doing double-file, but it kind of gaps (the cars) a little bit to where it’s not everyone nose-to-tail 15 rows deep diving in there. There’s a lot of differing opinions and ideas that are floating around, and we’ll see what we come up with, but, personally, from a driver’s standpoint it just gets messy.”
There’s time for NASCAR to decide if anything needs to be done. The next Xfinity race is June 3 at Portland. The next Cup road course race is June 11 at Sonoma.
“I don’t think you need to do anything for Sonoma,” Blaney said. “The way the restart zone is there it’s slow and you’re going up the hill right away. You don’t get the four-wide kind of thing there, so I don’t think Sonoma is anything we need to be working on.”
After that will be the inaugural Xfinity and Cup races at the Chicago street course on July 1-2. That course has a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the start/finish line that could replicate the chaos seen in restarts at COTA and Indy.
“I think Chicago is gonna be wild no matter what you do,” Blaney said.
4. Another new short track winner?
Sunday presents the opportunity for a ninth consecutive different winner of a short track race on pavement.
Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.
When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.
From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.
Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.
When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.
So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.
Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.
Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.
The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format have changed over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.
“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”
Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.
RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.
“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”
Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.
The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.
As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.
“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”
RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.
RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.
Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.
The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.
“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”
The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.
“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”
Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.
RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.