The time is here. The time is ready to crown a champion in the NASCAR Cup Series at the Phoenix Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Four drivers enter, one will leave with a shiny new trophy is his hand. The main question is, who?
Since the Championship 4 format was installed in 2014, the winner of the season finale race also won the championship. You’ll have to go back seven years ago to when the season champion didn’t win the finale as well.
But, this is a shift in the eras too as the Homestead-Miami Speedway isn’t hosting the final race of the season anymore. This year and next, it’s to Phoenix. Does that have an impact?
The four drivers vying for the championship hope not. They each hope to be the one crossing the finish line ahead of the other three competitors for the title.
Here are the cases for and against the drivers for winning on Sunday.
He won the opening race of the Round of 8. He has the most preparation for Phoenix because of that. How big of an advantage will that be? All the drivers say it’s the biggest advantage out there since they’ve been preparing for their Phoenix car the last two weeks and they haven’t.
The proof is in the pudding. Stats show that the later you win in the Round of 8, the worse you do in the Championship 4.
Kevin Harvick won the second race last year and was third in the Championship 4. Hamlin won the last race of the round in 2019 and was fourth out of four in the final round. In 2018, Logano, Harvick and Kyle Busch won the Round of 8 races in that order. They finished 1-2-4 in that order in the Championship 4.
Something is to be had by that.
Logano, is the only driver in the Championship 4 to have won a title under this format. He won the race at Phoenix this past spring and enters hot with 12 top 10 finishes in his last 14 starts on the season.
This is a must win situation. Logano’s win at Kansas a few weeks ago was his first during the pandemic. He’s been strong lately, but can he win? His win in Kansas was with a car that wasn’t the fastest. He’s had top five pace, but more times than not, he hasn’t had THE fastest car. He will need the fastest car on Sunday though to win.
Plus, Logano has just two top five finishes at Phoenix since 2016. Also, the last time a driver has won the spring Phoenix race and the championship in the same year? Jeff Gordon back in 1995.
He enters as one of the hottest drivers now. Keselowski, had a top six finish in all three races last round. Also, on 750 horsepower tracks, he’s won three races on them, most among all drivers in the series. He’s bringing the car that he won two of those three races on with him to Phoenix, a track that he led over 80 laps at this past spring.
He’s only had three top five finishes in his last 13 races on the season. He’s also only had two top five finishes at Phoenix since 2015. He was only 11th this past spring.
Hamlin is the only one of the four to have overall success at Phoenix lately. Yes, Logano won this past spring but he only has two top five finishes on the track since 2016. Keselowski, has just two top five finishes there since 2015. Elliott, has two top five finishes ever.
Hamlin, has three top five finishes in his last five Phoenix starts. He won this very race after leading over 100 laps a year ago. He’s the best at Phoenix. Can he capitalize?
Hamlin is the coldest of the four drivers entering this weekend. He’s scored one win over his last 11 starts on the season and that was on a superspeedway. He’s also only had three top five results during that time frame too. On top of that, while Hamlin had success at Phoenix last year, this year’s package is different. He finished 20th with it this past March, worst among the four championship contenders. On 750 horsepower tracks, Hamlin has also struggled on the season overall. Eight of his 11 finishes on them were outside the top 10 with six of those eight outside of the top 15.
He’s coming off of a win last Sunday in Martinsville. He’s won the last two cutoff races and looks to be clutch when needed. Elliott, also has six top seven finishes in his last eight starts on the season at that. On 750 horsepower tracks, he has three wins too. Also, eight of his last nine starts under this horsepower/downforce package, he’s finished in the top 10.
Two of those three wins on this 750 package were on road courses. Elliott, hasn’t had a Phoenix top five since the spring of 2018. His seventh place finish on March 8 was his first top 10 in his last four starts on the Arizona oval. Also, he’s only had two top five finishes in nine Phoenix tries.
The time is here. The final race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season is upon us. Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) will see a champion crowned at the Phoenix Raceway. Will it be a repeat champion (Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano) or a first time winner (Chase Elliott or Denny Hamlin).
Each has their own story as to why it can happen.
Logano and Paul Wolfe are the top driver crew chief combination among them. Logano, won the spring race at Phoenix and won the opening race of the Round of 8. He feels like those are large advantages to be had and feels like he’s the favorite.
But, Hamlin and Chris Gabehart are the only ones that have been in the final round together among these four. They did so just last year. In a do-or-die moment at Phoenix in this very playoff race a year ago, they prevailed. Combined, they’ve won 13 races over the last two seasons together. Can they get a 14th and a title to go along with it?
The longest standing driver-crew chief pairing is Elliott and Alan Gustafson. They’ve been together since 2016. Gustafson, has been in this final round before while Elliott hasn’t.
Then you have Keselowski and Jeremy Bullins. They’re just the opposite as Elliott and Gustafson. Keselowski, has a final round appearance to where Bullins doesn’t. While Keselowski has won a championship before, he just hasn’t in this new era. Logano, has.
“I truly believe that we’re the favorites to win this thing,” said Logano. “That’s important to me to feel that way. I feel like I have real things to back that up.”
Elliott, well he doesn’t know what to expect. He’s never been here before. He’s just trying to soak it all in. He does feel like he has an advantage by winning the last race of the season last Sunday in Martinsville, but he can’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s never been here and is the only one of the four without any prior final round appearances.
“I don’t know because I’ve never done it,” said Elliott. “I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before.
“I just think to be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong, in my opinion, my approach right now, is the wrong thing.
“I’m just all eyes. My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That is what matters on Sunday. That is going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter.”
Keselowski, has won most on 750 tracks and he’s bringing the car that he won the last two races on them with Sunday.
So, who takes the championship though? It’s going to be the driver and team who’s the most perfect all day on Sunday. You can’t afford mistakes at Phoenix and expect to overcome them. The one among the most even Championship 4 field that we’ve arguably ever had, is going to be the one celebrating on Sunday evening.
With that said, something is to be said with Logano’s confidence. He’s gotten hot on the season again and the driver to have won the opening race of the Round of 8 has won the championship twice in the last four years. They finished second in the other two. Logano, did it in 2018.
He and Paul Wolfe seem to be working so well together right now that I think their time to shine happens.
I’ll pick Logano.