In some ways, the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series final four feels like the turning of a page and a start of a new era.
This is NASCAR’s next generation of perennial contenders. With an average age of 28.8, a few months younger than the group that challenged for the Bill France Cup in 2022, this is a foursome that should no doubt dominate box scores over the next decade.
That doesn’t mean the recently eliminated Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex won’t contend next season, or Brad Keselowski, nor does it mean the likes of Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher or a new group of challengers will not emerge but dynamic has shifted.
The past decade under this format has been dominated by the soon to be retiring Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Truex with five appearances in the final four respectively. It has been their era but they are certainly closer to the end of their careers than the four that advanced this year.
All of this is to say get used to it because this group combined with Tyler Reddick, Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain reasonably feel like a dynamic of their own over the next decade.
The NASCAR Final 4 is more than deserving
For all the hand-wringing over this format and its ability to crown a legitimate champion, is there really an argument against these four?
Say what you will about regular season or season long results, but this format ultimately comes down to execution over the final 10 races of the season, and these four have done the thing when it mattered the most.
Most laps led in the playoffs?
The final four also appear in the season long top-five leaders lists for both top-10s and wins. The notable omission from this list is Denny Hamlin and that’s a fair rebuttal but in the words of his own crew chief, Chris Gabehart, teams largely make their own luck and they ‘crapped out’ when it mattered the most.
Some point to the number of times Larson has failed to finish races this season, eight for the record, but that doesn’t mean anything in this format. It’s not the Latford System and if a team is capable of winning enough between those DNFs, they get rewarded for it.
Many of you are old enough to remember the discourse around the 2003 season, Matt Kenseth winning the season long points battle with just a single win, while eight-win Ryan Newman finished sixth due to seven DNFs.
There is such a romanticism right now for what Kenseth accomplished that there is also a complete brain cramp on what was said about Newman and how NASCAR needed to reward victories more while using that as their argument.
Listen, the format is what it is, but under the confines of what teams are asked to do over 35 weeks, this format generally gets it right. You can make the case for the No. 11 team over the past three weeks, but the 12 won when it mattered the most and the 11 didn’t.
Truex was completely absent after his regular season championship while top-seeded Byron was able to do just enough to advance on Sunday while also still leading a great deal of laps over the past nine weeks.
You can hate the system, but everyone knows what the requirements are goinfg in, and these teams met the moment. Stats like total points accumulated over the season, DNFs, average finish, none of them matter.
The game is simple: Score as many seeding points during the regular season to create a playoff advantage if you need them. If you don’t have them, or it’s close, you have to win instead. This creates an emphasis on both regular season and playoff performance, something that just isn’t getting enough credit in the weekly discourse.
Again, individual mileage will vary on the entertainment factor of the format, but it has about a .900 batting percentage on getting the right teams to the final four — which is why, historically, the same drivers keep landing there over the first decade of its history.
Who is the favorite?
One flaw of the current format, and really there is more to it than the winner-take-all finale, is that it currently ends at Phoenix Raceway.
With all due respect to a really wonderful facility in a neat part of the country, the flat one mile track is just the worst possible place to decide the Cup Series championship right now with the current generation of car.
This will be the third year in a row, since the race moved from Homestead Miami Speedway, that the season long championship will be decided by who gets off pit road first on the final pit stop likely to occur near the end of the race.
Phoenix is one-groove and this car just cannot pass on these types of tracks.
So it just makes it really hard to pinpoint with confidence which of the final four teams are the favorite to win. It’s likely that at some point all four will run 1-2-3-4 and the championship will be decided by tangibles like the choose rule, restart execution and the over-the-wall pit crews.
These are things that matter, of course, but Homestead was just the perfect track to decide the champion because NASCAR only goes there once a year, there are multiple grooves and intermediate lengths tracks are still the backbone of the discipline.
Phoenix currently has the championship race because it received a $178 million renovation back in 2018. It’s a great facility, and it’s not even a bad race track as the Xfinity Series will surely show on Saturday, but it’s not a great fit for the Cup cars right now.
All four of these teams should be good this weekend. They will also receive the longest practice session of the year at 50 minutes to get right, and that will go a long way towards prognostication.
Praise for Goodyear
Sunday was the best race of the NextGen era at Martinsville Speedway.
Certainly it was a low bar to clear compared to the first three years but Goodyear delivered a directionally positive experience with a gummy tire that laid down a lot of rubber on the track all weekend.
There were eight green flag lead changes, including a memorable back and forth between Hamlin and Blaney off the penultimate restart, and more natural cautions than in the previous three races combined.
Certainly, everyone was aided by unseasonably warm temperatures than exceeded 85 degrees, making the track even wider and slicker and it produced a generally fun race.
With that said, there is still a lot of work to be done when NASCAR tests at Phoenix following the championship race. The car still produces too much grip and too little horsepower, not to mention the issue with downshifting in the corners, all things addressed by Truex, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the weekend but Sunday was a step in the right direction.
Credit where credit is due.
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.