NASCAR Cup Series
Kyle Larson, Cliff Daniels Will Chase a Different Championship at Phoenix
Oct 24, 2022
In two weeks at Phoenix Raceway, there will be a championship finalist who is not really a championship finalist, chasing a Cup Series championship that isn’t the Cup Series championship but is more valuable than the Cup Series championship.
With a win on Sunday at Homestead Miami Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 team will race for the owner’s championship at Phoenix, even though reigning Cup Series driver's champion Kyle Larson was eliminated from contention earlier in the month at the ROVAL.
To understand the unique circumstances that led to this point, we have to go all the way back to May 15 when Kurt Busch drove the 23XI Racing No. 45 to a win at Kansas Speedway.
The Cup Series owner standings operate the same as the drivers championship in that full-time cars that win a race are eligible for the playoffs as long as that entry remains in the top-30 of the owner standings.
Typically, the driver playoffs and owner playoffs are analogous because only cars driven by full-time drivers win at the Cup Series level. Typically. This was the case up until July 23 when Busch crashed in practice at Pocono Raceway and was unable to return to active competition due to a concussion.
Busch eventually withdrew his request for a waiver to compete in the playoffs as a driver but the No. 45 car was still eligible for the Cup Series Owner Playoffs no matter who drove the car the remainder of the season.
This also had a peripheral affect on the driver’s playoffs too because winless Ryan Blaney earned the final spot into the Round of 16 only as a result of Busch giving up his spot. As a result, the Team Penske No. 12 car did not make the owner playoffs even though its driver made the driver Round of 16.
This is notable because a vast majority of the end of the year championship purse is distributed based on the owner’s standings and not the driver standings. In other words, Blaney could go on to win the Cup Series championship at Phoenix but his team can finish no higher than 17th in the standings.
Under this hypothetical scenario, Blaney would get paid contractual bonuses for winning the championship, not to mention contingency sponsorship money awarded to the champion, but the owners champion will get paid the champion’s share of the purse.
That could be the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 because that car advanced at the Roval when Larson did not because there was no Team Penske No. 12 ahead of them in the standings. Again, the Penske No. 12 did not make the owner’s Round of 16 because the 23XI Racing No. 45 qualified instead.
This is why 23XI Racing moved the entire No. 23 team over to the No. 45 at the start of the playoffs. Their calculus was that Bubba Wallace and Bootie Barker were a stronger bet to finish higher in the standings that pay the most over rookie Ty Gibbs.
That decision paid off when Wallace won at Kansas to advance to the Owner’s Round of 8. Even when Wallace was suspended for a retaliatory action on the track against Larson, the previously eliminated No. 45 continued to battle for fifth in the owner’s standings with John Hunter Nemechek at Homestead.
It’s the same for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48, which has continued to race for fifth in the owner’s standings even after Alex Bowman was sidelined with his own concussion symptoms, because it’s those standings that matter as it pertains to the end of the year points fund.
This presents a unique scenario for Phoenix as Larson could win the race and the owners championship, ahead of a driver’s champion in second or further back. Theoretically, Blaney could make the driver’s final four and win at Phoenix to win the championship, but Larson could finish second and still win the owner’s championship.
Or, one of the other contenders who are both driver and owner points eligible could win at Phoenix and make this entire point moot from a championship standpoint.
This is not entirely a byproduct of the championship format, as so many have insinuated, but rather a result of 16 different regular season winners combined with a pair of drivers missing time due to injuries.
It used to be a lot more common for multiple drivers to split an elite car prior to the Modern Era, and that resulted in two instances of the owner’s and driver’s championship being split.
1954: Lee Petty wins the driver championship with two teams and Herb Thomas won the owner championship with his No. 92 car
1963: Joe Weatherly won the driver championship with nine different teams and the Wood Brothers No 21 won the owner championship with Glen Wood, Marvin Panch, Tiny Lund, Fred Lorenzen and Dave MacDonald
It’s more commonly seen in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, but even in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour this season, with Tommy Baldwin Racing winning the owner’s championship with Mike Christopher, Doug Coby and Jimmy Blewett.
The drivers champion, to be decided on Thursday at Martinsville, is not a Tommy Baldwin Racing driver -- Justin Bonsignore, Jon McKennedy, Ron Silk or Eric Goodale.
So, this is not entirely unheard of, but it is a unique wrinkle and an added storyline to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship race in two weeks at Phoenix, and the potential of two simultaneous championship celebrations.