When Kyle Busch won the 2015 Sprint Cup championship, numerous predictions had him going on to win multiple championships from that point in his career.
After all, Busch is still quite young (30) and likely has another good 10 to 15 years ahead of him in NASCAR’s premier series.
And not surprisingly, comparisons with Jimmie Johnson and his six Sprint Cup championships—including five in a row from 2006 through 2010—were quick to be drawn.
If the first championship is always the hardest to win, then Busch is well on his way to winning two, three, maybe even more in a row, right?
While it’s mathematically possible for Busch to still win several championships in his career, the reality is that the same Chase format he beat to win this year’s championship will also be the same thing that will prevent him from winning multiple titles.
If it was easy for a driver in the new format to win multiple crowns, then it would have been Kevin Harvick—who won the Sprint Cup crown in 2014—who would have come back and won two in a row in 2015.
But that was not the case, and Harvick wound up finishing second to Busch in the championship battle.
Ever since the new format for the Chase debuted in 2014, folks have been talking about the two seasons of the Chase: the “regular season,” which covers the first 26 races, and the 10-race Chase playoffs.
But in actuality, the Chase is not a 10-race “season.” From a more realistic standpoint, the Chase is four seasons—NASCAR calls them “rounds”—in one.
There are the first three rounds of three races each. Drivers can have the greatest run in the regular season and still not be assured of reaching the championship round.
Ask Joey Logano, who won a series-high six races before being eliminated in the Chase after the third round. And if he had not drawn a two-race suspension for putting Logano into the wall at Martinsville, Matt Kenseth may have reached the fourth season/round.
That’s both the beauty and the curse of the new Chase format. You have to go through an entire season in just three races. One bad race and you are back on your heels, unless it’s the last race of the round. Then you are looking at potential elimination from advancing to the next round.
And that’s where the rub lies with Busch—and every other Cup driver—for that matter.
Think of all the years Busch qualified for the Chase, only to fall far short time after time. Now that he finally made it all the way through, he has to start right back at the beginning come February at Daytona.
And even if he were to win 10 races in the first 26, that does not guarantee Busch will win the championship, let alone make it to the final round.
Look at Johnson in this year’s first round. He came in with four wins, looked like he might be one of the favorites, headed to arguably his most successful track (Dover International Speedway) and was eliminated from further advancement in the final race of that opening round.
No matter how well a driver gets familiar with or accustomed to the new Chase format, dominating performances in the regular season or even round-to-round in the Chase are not going to guarantee anything.
Heck, a driver who is consistent but wins minimally or not at all has just as good of a chance of reaching the championship round of four as the most dominant driver on the circuit.
Ryan Newman made it to the final round and almost won the championship in 2014 without earning one win that season.
And in 2015, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth, respectively, in the championship—yet they were only able to earn one win apiece.
I’d like to think that somewhere, somehow, a very smart crew chief will find a way to beat the Chase formula at its own game.
But right now, given the uniqueness—and more importantly, the overall toughness—of the format, if anyone has the perception that he can do what Johnson did under the old format, forget it.
Like they say in Las Vegas, the deck is stacked too much against you.