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.
“I will say that I do feel like as the years have gone on, seems like the first year of this Final 4 thing, at least the first year I was a part of it, they didn’t want anything to do with those guys,” Chase Elliott said on Thursday as he’ll be going for his first championship this weekend. “Then it seems like as the years have gone on, people are just kind of running their race a little more.
“I do think the respect is still there, but I do think there is a little bit more of a sense of those guys, the people that are not a part of the Final 4, running their event still.”
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.
Also, Phoenix is a place where drivers may be able to use their bumpers more. But, will they?
Elliott got revenge on Hamlin a few years ago when Phoenix was the Round of 8 cutoff race. Ryan Newman moved Kyle Larson out of the way in Turn 4 in 2014 to get himself to the Championship 4. Harvick tried to wreck Kyle Busch on the last lap of Martinsville last week to gain one spot to get himself to the final round.
Those were all to get to the Championship 4. But, this is the Championship 4 on a slower, smaller track, that getting to someone’s bumper is easier than say Homestead.
“Very well it can happen a lot easier,” Logano said on Thursday. “You seen what happened at Martinsville last week. Shoot, I was running fifth or so in the beginning of the race. They’re rooting and gauging each other out 20, 30 laps into the race, running into each other. Oh, boy, this is going to get crazy.
“That was just to get into the Championship 4. Imagine what it’s going to be to win the championship itself in Phoenix.”
His teammate Brad Keselowski said that he feels like at some point during the 312 lap race, someone will get into another driver. But, to what extent?
“I would suspect that there will be some kind of moment where there will be a little fender‑bender,” he said. “How much? I don’t know.”
Keselowski, hasn’t really thought about it much though as he’s just focusing on themselves. He hopes to get to the lead and pull away and not have to worry about it.
Denny Hamlin says that he’s more old school in his approach and didn’t expect to take matters in his own hands on Sunday.
“I think I’m probably a little more of a purist than what some of the younger guys that come into the sport now are,” Hamlin said. “I mean, you see Truck races and Xfinity races and guys just kind of running all over each other. That might just be the way racing is now. But it’s just not the way that I saw it back in the day, and so I modeled myself after guys that really kind of took care of their equipment and appreciated the purer side of things. You work a guy over.
“The art of working over a pass is such a beautiful thing if you can get it done. And so nowadays it’s just like, you just get frustrated after two laps and you knock the guy out of the way and move on and you don’t even have to say sorry later. It just becomes expected.
“Certainly within this final four everyone will have their own feelings about what they think is allowed and whatnot, but we’ve seen people within this group also make aggressive moves and everyone else is there watching. So it’s like, well, you can’t be mad if it comes back around to you because you’ve done it in the past.”
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.