By Matt Weaver (TALLADEGA, Ala.) –The legitimacy of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has come under continuous scrutiny ever since the advent of the Chase for the Championship but the events of Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway may have added much-needed credibility to the eventual champion in 2014.
The naysayers often proclaim that the champions of today are not comparable to those of yesteryear. Worst yet, others say that the playoff era titleholders are somehow a lesser breed because they have not always been the “best team.”
So this begs an obvious question: How do we define the best? Is the best team the one with the most wins or is it the one with the best average finish over 36 races?
The traditionalists would have the driver who accumulates the most points over 36 races crowned the champion but NASCAR has adopted several point payout systems that would have produced different results if applied over a full season. (1992, anyone?) The notion of a best team is completely subjective and not affected by a playoff in the least.
So perhaps the mark of a champion is earned when a team executes at the highest level and when the stakes are highest — like Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 team’s victory on Sunday at Talladega.
Despite the random feel of the Chase Grid, the new championship format requires that teams continually execute for the entirety of the format. There is no cruising for consistency. The format requires excellence, especially when a team endures bad luck like the No. 2 at Kansas and Charlotte over the past two weeks.
At this point, it was win or go home and the 2012 champions drove right into Victory Lane.
Eight drivers now remain in the 2014 Chase for the Championship. They are Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.
Each driver and team has utilized a different path to advance to the Eliminator Eight. The format is the best of both worlds — demanding victories and consistency — and allowing seemingly defeated drivers, like Keselowski, to rise above the ashes.
Despite a combined eight victories this season, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch were simply not the best this season. With all due respect, if they were, they would have answered the bell and risen to the occasion in the same vein that Keselowski did when it mattered the most.
The eventual champion is going to be the team that executes at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. The best team is going to win one of the next three races and at Martinsville, and when it’s do or die in Miami, they are going to rise to the occasion and do what has to be done.
Because that’s what the best team does. That’s what a champion does.
So how do we define the best in the world? Right now, with only four races remaining, it looks an awful lot like Brad Keselowski.