35 races down, one to go. Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series finale at the Phoenix Raceway will be the first time of this playoff era that the championship will be awarded anywhere other than the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Now, will Sunday’s championship race give us what NASCAR was hoping it would?
Homestead was a great place for the finale, but the one drawback I didn’t like was, no one was racing the Championship 4 drivers. It never failed, by the end of the race, the four going for the title were 1-2-3-4 in the running order.
While I get that no one wants to ruin the day of a championship member so you race them way more lenient, the end of the race was only focused on them. For the casual viewer, this made the final round confusing.
I mean you have a 40 car field but the onus is on the four drivers competing for a title. The confusion sets in that you have the non championship drivers sharing the same race track as the ones racing for a title in the same race.
That would be like instead of the already eliminated teams leaving the NBA Bubble in Orlando, them showing up to the same court as the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers playing their own games against each other while the Heat and Lakers are also playing their own game too.
I can see why James Harden wouldn’t want to shoot a 3 at the same time as LeBron James and not want his ball to knock James’ ball off the rim in a game to where Harden’s doesn’t really mean much and James’ shot could mean everything.
It can be confusing.
This new playoff era was adopted in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2004. Since that time, the season finale has always taken place at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Over the last 16 seasons, NASCAR went to the South Florida race track just once each year. That meant that Homestead was its own breed.
Homestead first appeared on the NASCAR schedule in 1999. The race from 1999 through 2001 was always the second to last race of the season. Then, for 2002 up until now, it’s served as the final stop of the year.
See, with only one visit to the race track each year, by time we got to Homestead in November, the only data we had for that race was the previous year’s. That separated the annual stop from everything else.
This year, the championship race moves west to the Phoenix Raceway. NASCAR goes to Phoenix twice a year still, including this weekend, meaning that for the first time since 2001, the season finale race will be a return trip from an early race that season.
But, what’s different about 2001 and 2020 is, that season was run on an accumulation of a whole seasons worth of points. Now, it’s just four drivers and whomever crosses the finish line first among them wins the championship.
“It’s definitely unique going to the track twice,” Martin Truex Jr. said of a place hosting the championship as well as a spring race too. “I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal.”
Also, one driver is concerned that even with filling the notebook from the spring, will the compound even be used this Fall?
“There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1,” Brad Keselowski said. “They are putting it down, but will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there.”
Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, said back in March that he thought Phoenix 1 was the most important race of the season because of what could be ahead for November. He ended up winning the race that weekend too.
“I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship,” the 2017 champion said. “You need to really learn as much as possible.”
Clint Bowyer, who was eliminated from championship contention in the Round of 12, said that Phoenix is the perfect track to host the finale still.
“If there ever was a track that we needed to move our championship to it’s got to be Phoenix,” Bowyer said. “Look at the fan base. It’s grown since I’ve been in the sport. Phoenix is a great opportunity to hold a championship race and I’m looking forward to going to it.”
Bowyer knows the mile oval at Phoenix can be as challenging as any track on the circuit.
“There are a couple of tough things about Phoenix,” he said. “Finding your stall on pit road is tricky, especially if you are pitted down around the corner. Second is figuring out the restarts now that we start in the dogleg. You have to figure out how to give room to the guy in front of you so you don’t get on the brakes and get hit from behind or screw up and let that guy make it three-wide and you lose a lot of spots. Finally, that sun is tough in Phoenix. You can miss the bottom (groove) the first lap or two because of the sun.”
So, to Phoenix we go on Sunday in a race that could finally feature some good up front racing among non playoff drivers.
NASCAR altered the short track package this year to a higher horsepower (750) and lower downforce. Last year, it was the opposite and last year’s short track racing was, how do I put this easy, sucked.
Martinsville’s cutoff race last Sunday was absolutely perfect. It gave us everything that we wanted. Can Phoenix?
The Championship 4 drivers aren’t necessarily at their best at Phoenix anyways. Yes, Joey Logano won this past March but he’s only had two top five finishes in his last nine starts on the Arizona race track. His teammate Brad Keselowski has just two top five finishes there since 2015. Chase Elliott has two top five finishes in his career (9 starts) at Phoenix. Denny Hamlin has three top five finishes in his last five starts, but those are his only top fives in his last eight overall starts there too.
That can open the door for someone like Kevin Harvick. He’s won nine times on the season and nine times at Phoenix too. He was runner-up in March.
Kyle Busch is great at Phoenix and finally won a couple races ago in Texas. He has two top five finishes in his last three starts on the season and six top seven finishes in the nine playoff races run.
Ryan Blaney has five top seven finishes in his last six starts in 2020 and was third in both races in 2019.
Alex Bowman is hot and has nine top 10 finishes in his last 11 starts on the season including three straight in the top six.
The stats are all lined up for give us a Harvick vs. Busch vs. Blaney battle for the win. Maybe even some championship guys mixed in there too.
This is what NASCAR wanted. Do the drivers deliver on Sunday or do we get that same old 1-2-3-4 battle up front among the championship drivers.