Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kyle Larson put on a masterclass reminiscent of the stranglehold he and Hendrick Motorsports had over the NASCAR Cup Series field last season, leading 199 of 267 laps on the way to his third victory of 2022.
The race, despite being won by a non-playoff driver, will have enormous ramifications on the championship picture in two weeks at Phoenix Raceway, in a way that the NASCAR Cup Series has seen very few times in its 74-year history.
Only two times before has the NASCAR Cup Series had an instance where the championship-winning driver was different from the championship-winning team. However, both of those instances – 1954 and 1963 – were nearly 60 – or more – years ago.
Larson, who was eliminated from the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs following a controversial finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL, won’t be able to use the win to secure a berth in the championship-deciding race at Phoenix.
Despite the elimination of the Elk Grove, California-native, Hendrick Motorsports, and the No. 5 team are still able to leave Phoenix Raceway with a championship trophy, through the NASCAR Cup Series Owner’s Championship.
So, how did the NASCAR Cup Series end up in this situation?
Earlier this season, Kurt Busch was able to defend against a late-race charge from Kyle Larson to secure the victory at Kansas Speedway, bringing the No. 45 – 23XI Racing’s second entry – to victory lane for the first time.
At the time, there was nothing abnormal about the win. Just like it works in the Driver’s Playoffs, the victory clinched 23XI Racing’s No. 45 entry – scheduled to be driven by Kurt Busch – a spot into the Owner’s Playoffs.
But, two months after the win at Kansas, Busch suffered a massive rear-end impact in the final round of qualifying at Pocono Raceway, which would sideline him from the event the next day.
Suffering from concussion-like symptoms, a one-race break turned into two, which turned into three. Eventually, the situation became a weekly update, each of which confirmed Busch would have to delay his return even longer.
Then came the official announcement – and this situation’s turning point – in which Busch would be forced to sit out for the beginning of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, and that the Las Vegas, Nevada-native would be withdrawing his request for a medical waiver.
Busch’s decision to remove his Playoff eligibility, allowed Ryan Blaney to take the final spot, based on his points position. However, with Ty Gibbs serving as 23XI Racing’s interim driver, there was no decision to make, as far as the No. 45’s eligibility for the Owner’s Playoffs.
That’s not where the story ends, though. 23XI Racing’s choice to swap the organization’s two teams for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, coupled with Ryan Blaney’s deep run into the post-season have combined to create an interesting situation.
After another victory at Kansas Speedway in the first round of the Playoffs – this time by Bubba Wallace – the No. 45 was able to make it to the end of the second round, before getting bounced from championship contention.
The team’s elimination from the post-season, along with Blaney’s simultaneous advancement, created a scenario in which Chase Briscoe’s buzzer-beater rally to advance to the ‘Round of 8′ had varying impacts on the Driver and Owner Standings.
While Larson was eliminated from the Driver’s Playoffs because of a two-point deficit at the end of the Bank of America ROVAL 400, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 entry actually had a two-point advantage on Trackhouse Racing’s No. 99.
Fast-forward to Sunday’s 400-mile event in Miami and that two-point advantage from two weeks ago will have an enormous impact on the Owner’s Point position for Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 5 team at season’s end.
But, why is that so important?
When the 36-race NASCAR Cup Series season comes to a close, NASCAR distributes money from the Points Fund to the series’ organizations, solely based on where each entry is ranked in Owner’s Championship Standings.
So, even though the possibility exists that Ryan Blaney could win the NASCAR Cup Series title when the checkered flag waves at Phoenix Raceway, Team Penske will still only receive winnings for an entry ranked – at best – 17th in Owner’s Points.
Furthermore, Hendrick Motorsports – whose driver, Kyle Larson, can finish no better than fifth-place in point standings – could leave Phoenix Raceway as the highest-paid entry in the series from the Points Fund, despite Larson not hoisting the championship trophy.
With the NASCAR Cup Series set to solidify the ‘Championship Four’ at Martinsville Speedway next weekend, the exact implications of Larson’s beatdown Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway have yet to be seen.
However, it can be said with 100 percent certainty that there will be one driver competing for the biggest prize at NASCAR’s top-level, who will have their organization excluded from the chance to claim the first-place Points Fund money.
When it comes down to it, Larson’s win essentially turns the originally advertised four-driver battle for the NASCAR Cup Series title, into a battle between five drivers and their organizations, with a side-order of multiple convoluted and potentially confusing caveats.
…and doesn’t that go against the intended simplicity of the winner-takes-all formal that NASCAR has employed to decide its champion for the last eight years?