Think back. Way Back. Think back to a time when the car of tomorrow was just an idea. Back to a time when Winston was still NASCAR's primary sponsor. Think way back to a time when Kyle Busch had never won a race in any of NASCAR's top three divisions, and Jimmie Johnson was a zero time NASCAR Champion. I am talking about all the way back in 2003.
Way back in 2003 after the final checkered flag of the season was waved at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Matt Kenseth had earned his first career NASCAR Championship. But truth be known, Kenseth had actually already clinched his championship the week before with his fourth place finish at Rockingham.
This made the Homestead race nothing more than a victory parade for Kenseth, a parade that was short lived as Kenseth wound up having engine troubles very early in the race relegating him to a finish of dead last.
But it didn't matter. Kenseth didn't even need to show up in Miami that day and he still would have walked away with the sports biggest prize. He wound up winning the championship by 90 points over up and coming superstar, Jimmie Johnson.
Matt Kenseth, as well as car owner, Jack Roush, now each had their first championships, but not everyone was happy about it. The problem was not that Kenseth had won the championship, instead the problem was with how he won it.
Kenseth had only one win in 2003, and that came at Las Vegas, back in March, the third race of the season. On the other hand, Kenseth's closest rival to the championship, Johnson, had three wins, but they all paled in comparison to Ryan Newman and his unbelievable eight wins. But Newman finished a distant sixth in the standings, 311 points behind Kenseth.
So, this begged the question: "how can a guy with only one win, finish so far ahead of someone who has eight?" The answer is consistency. While he had just the lone victory, Kenseth lead the series with 25 top ten finishes, three more than anyone else. He also had only two DNF's, including his blown engine at Homestead, which was five fewer than Newman.
In a sport where winning is everything, many people began crying out that winning races should have more of an emphasis in determining a champion than just season long consistency.
With Winston leaving the sport as primary sponsor, and Nextel coming in, this became the perfect time to really shake things up, and for the first time in the sport, introduce a "playoff" where the top 10 in points after 26 races would the only ones eligible to win the sports most coveted prize. The other big change, was that the amount of points earned for a race win increased from 175 to 185, thus placing more of an emphasis on winning.
Since 2004's inaugural Chase for the Championship, the Chase has seen a few modifications into the version we now know with the points being reset and each win, earning a driver a ten point bonus going into the playoffs. Also since that time, only one time has a champion been crowned having fewer than five wins in a season, and that was Kurt Busch with three in 2004.
This season, however, NASCAR's greatest fear could become reality. While it still seems unlikely that it could happen, it is very conceivable that this years Sprint Cup Champion could have a goose egg in the win column.
With eight races left in the season, four of the twelve drivers eligible for the championship are still winless for the season. Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Matt Kenseth have all yet to find victory lane this season but could still walk away with the most important trophy of them all.
While Kenseth seems to be a real longshot for the title, the other three drivers have all found themselves right in the middle of the fight.
Jeff Gordon is a four time championship winner, who has the third most top fives on the season. Jeff Burton, fresh off a runner up finish at Dover, could easily have multiple wins this year, if a few breaks would have gone his way. And Carl Edwards is currently the hottest driver in the series, having scored the most points in the last 11 races, with nine top tens in that stretch, and a worst finish of twelfth over that same period.
NASCAR has made every effort over the last seven years to make winning races one of the biggest determining factors in winning its championship. And while the current top two drivers in the standings, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, are tied with the series lead with six wins each, neither is by any means guaranteed the title.
The biggest problem facing NASCAR is that regardless of what happens, someone will always think something is wrong with the system. Some people think that it's unfair that Kevin Harvick lost his 236 point lead when the playoffs started. Others think it would be wrong for someone to win the championship while not winning a race. And others still, have a problem that Jamie McMurray, the winner of this seasons two biggest races, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, is not eligible to run for the ultimate prize.
So, while Matt Kenseth's championship run of 2003 started a crusade to make wins more important than a season of consistency, seven years later, there is the potential to have a repeat of history.
Should Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick, or any of the other drivers who have race wins this season, win the Sprint Cup it would definitely be well deserved. But should Edwards, Gordon, Burton, or even Kenseth win the championship without ever having been to victory lane, not only would it be well deserved, it would just prove that consistency is the key to winning over the long haul.