Comparing the Sprint Cup championship-winning seasons of the past 15 years proves a difficult task. How does one compensate for the numerous changes in the points system? The evolution of the cars—especially including the Car of Tomorrow? Different off-track pressures that come with the different mindset under the Chase?
As NASCAR moved towards homologated cars and embraced a playoff format in the past decade, championships became harder to win because fewer drivers were able to post dominant seasons. As such, the average finish of championship winners has generally gone down in the past 15 years—especially with the Chase altering who would've won the championship a total of five times.
To answer the questions posed earlier, the most important thing to consider is that we're power ranking entire seasons, not just Chase performance. A driver who came into the Chase cold and then broke out isn't going to get as much credit as a driver who was up front all season.
And while increased parity hurts, some of the seasons that drivers posted in the late 1990s were other-worldly despite having a strong field chasing them down—and the Chase hasn't precluded some drivers from posting similarly dominant seasons in recent years. But you may be surprised at who comprises the top three on this list:
Coming into the Chase ninth in points and with no wins, the only reason Stewart even had a shot at this championship was because he had a killer end of the season. And despite scoring five victories in the final 10 races, he still had to take the championship over Carl Edwards via tiebreaker.
Stewart had only nine top five finishes all season, a new all-time low for a Chase winner. There's a reason this championship still cost crew chief Darian Grubb his job, and it's because it's statistically the worst title-winning season of the past 15 years.
Who knows what would have happened if Jimmie Johnson had scored nine more points to win the 2004 title. Yes, Busch only had three wins to Johnson's eight and 10 top-10s to Johnson's 20. However, with nine top-10s in the Chase and only one blemish—an engine-induced 42nd place finish at Atlanta—he set the standard for how to win a championship under the new playoff format.
That being said, Jeff Gordon would have won his fifth championship if not for the Chase format this season, while Busch posted an average finish of 12.5 with only 21 top-10s.
This was Sterling Marlin's championship to lose, and a crash at Kansas and subsequent injury certainly lost it for him. That opened the door for Stewart, who was the best of an admittedly subpar bunch in 2002.
No driver posted an average finish above 12.2, and that was Mark Martin (Stewart's was 12.6). With an average of 133.33 points per race, Stewart's first title run was a far cry from the dominant season that teammate Bobby Labonte had posted two years earlier.
Keselowski was out of this world in the second half of the season, never finishing worse than 15th in the Chase and becoming the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2009 to score the most points both with and without the Chase format.
But with only 23 top-10s in 36 races, his title run is actually one of the less remarkable ones statistically. The magnitude of this title lies in the fact that he took five-time champion Johnson on head-to-head and managed to finish every race after a late wreck in the Daytona 500.
Johnson's fifth consecutive title showcased a flaw in the Chase system. He won the championship in a heated battle with Denny Hamlin with an average finish of 12.2, the worst of any driver since 2004.
But Kevin Harvick, who finished third in the Chase, posted a season worthy of a title, scoring an average finish of 8.7 and 26 top-10s in 36 starts despite an average starting spot of 21.0. Harvick scored an average of nearly eight more points per race than Johnson, good for two positions under the old championship format.
This one doesn't merit a high ranking on the list because Kenseth won only one of his 36 starts in 2003—the third race of the year at Las Vegas. Yes, he led the championship for the entire season from Atlanta on, but with only 11 top fives and 25 top-10s, there weren't too many strong challengers for the title; Ryan Newman won eight races, but seven DNFs killed him in the title hunt.
It was the lack of excitement in this title fight that led to the creation of the Chase.
Here's an example of just how greatly the Chase can alter the composition of a championship. Yes, Johnson won a season-high 10 races and had the best Chase of anyone. But second-placed Jeff Gordon had an average finish 3.5 positions better than Johnson on the season, scoring an unheard-of 30 top-10s in 36 starts, and were it not for the Chase, would have scored the title by a margin of 353 points.
This was somewhat of a middling championship season for Gordon. He only posted an average finish of 11.0, worst of the four titles he won. His six wins and 18 top-10s, numbers any other driver would dream of, were also championship-worsts for him. That being said, those numbers were still good enough to win the title by a comfortable 349 point margin over Tony Stewart, so it's not as if Gordon didn't get the job done.
Hands down, this is the most definitive championship of Johnson's career. Not only did he take it under both the Chase and classic formats—by 141 Chase points over Mark Martin, and by 66 classic points over Jeff Gordon—he managed to avoid the intense media pressure placed upon him to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.
Statistically, it's his third best (behind 2006 and 2007), but the external factors make it the season that showed Johnson at his best.
As they had been in 2005, the Chase champion and classic champion would have been the same, but by only the slimmest of margins: Johnson would've beat Matt Kenseth by four points for the championship in the closest (theoretical) championship battle in Cup history.
In reality, the difference in points was 56 thanks to the Chase, giving Johnson a comfortable first title and starting a dynasty. But the reason this ranks highly among Johnson's five titles is because of his average finish of 9.7 and 24 top-10s, two marks which stood even as he added four more championships in the next four years.
Unlike in its 2004 debut, the Chase champion would have won the title under the classic format as well, just by a wider margin. Stewart's 35-point advantage over Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards would have been a 215-point advantage over Biffle, with every other driver over 400 points back.
With five wins, 25 top-10s, and only one DNF, Stewart's average finish of 9.9 was the best mark posted by a championship winner since 2000.
2008 was a battle of heavyweights between Johnson and Carl Edwards. Both put up huge numbers—Johnson with seven wins and 22 top-10s, Edwards with nine wins and 27 top-10s—but Johnson prevailed by 69 points, though Edwards would have scored a 16-point victory if not for the Chase.
This serves as Johnson's strongest championship entry because he took the series' best driver head-on and effectively stared him down to win a third consecutive title; with an average of 145 points scored per race, it's also his most prolific points-wise.
Though he was never quite the same after this season, Labonte averaged a high top-10 finish in his championship season, posting a 7.4 on the strength of 24 top-10s in 34 starts.
Labonte is also the only driver in the past 15 years to finish every race he started in a championship-winning season, completing all but nine laps in the cleanest title run in recent memory. Ranking first in points for 31 weeks, including the last 25 in a row, he won the title by 265 points over Dale Earnhardt.
It wasn't quite good enough to make it to the top of this list, but Jarrett had an incredible 1999. He scored four wins, 24 top fives, and 29 top-10s in 34 starts to post an average finish of 6.8. He took the championship by 201 points over Bobby Labonte, as Gordon's seven DNFs dropped him and his seven wins to sixth in the standings.
Jarrett's lone DNF came in a crash in the season-opening Daytona 500, much like Brad Keselowski's title run this year.
What really stands out about Gordon's 1998 championship win is how good he had to be to win this championship. Mark Martin put together an other-worldly year, scoring seven wins and 26 top-10s, probably good enough for the championship any other season.
Gordon, however, scored a career-high 13 wins, 28 top-10s, and won the championship by a whopping 364 points. With an average of 161.45 points per race under the old system (about 40 per race under the new one), there's no doubt that Gordon's 1998 season has been the best title-winning run of the past 15 years.
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