Before we get to the season finale on Sunday afternoon at the Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), we first have the annual media day session. That occurred on Thursday afternoon. This year’s session was different than any other year in the past. This year’s, was done via zoom instead of in person at the race track on race weekend.
To me, this was vastly more beneficial than before to be honest. You got each driver on their own this time around.
After all four drivers were done though, one thing was clear, each are playing nicely. There are no games to be played. No one trying to get in the others head. Just a championship to be won on the track on Sunday.
It’s a race that everyone feels is the most even we’ve had in recent years. Despite that Joey Logano thinks that he’s the favorite to win it still. Chase Elliott nor Brad Keselowski don’t care who enters as a favorite nor an underdog, they’re just happy to be in the final round. Both Elliott and Keselowski are careful with the word “favorite” as they point to that as a betting word. Denny Hamlin is happy to be back. He feels like the Championship 4 is the goal of a season and a championship is just the icing on the cake.
Logano on the other hand, he’s not afraid to use it. He feels like he is the one to beat.
Logano, feels like an advantage is to be had to have won the opening race of the Round of 8. With Kyle Busch winning the second race and he not being championship eligible anymore, Logano’s No. 22 Ford is the only one with the most preparation to it. Following his Kansas win on Oct. 18, Logano’s crew was able to prepare a Phoenix car and massage on it for two weeks. No one else had that luxury.
“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.”
Logano, won the last race at Phoenix back on March 8 and he feels like that combined with him having four Championship 4 appearances now, well they hold a great advantage.
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.”
But, his crew chief has been here before in Alan Gustafson. He has been here with Jeff Gordon. They’ve also spent the longest tenure together with both Logano and Brad Keselowski being in their first seasons with their new crew chiefs and Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart in their second.
Elliott and Gustafson are in their fifth.
Where Elliott is a rookie in the Championship 4, so is Keselowski’s crew chief in Jeremy Bullins. He, like Elliott, is trying to soak this all in, but also feels like their past experiences in the final round in the Xfinity Series can pay off.
Keselowski, has won a championship before, but just not in this era. He’s equally as proud to be the one on this team to lead them to a championship shot and that has him booming with confidence for his 2 team. He feels like he’s due for a win at Phoenix.
Hamlin and Gabehart are the only combination to have experienced a Championship 4 together. In fact, they won this playoff race at Phoenix last year.
Gabehart, feels like that alone is an advantage in itself.
“I can’t think of a more favorable position to be in,” Gabehart said. “There’s certainly a more pressure-packed situation to be in than we were last year, way more than Richmond. For us making the Championship 4 is the goal. Winning the championship is gravy. Last year, like Chase, when we were in a do-or-die situation, we were able to pull it off at that racetrack, at the track where the championship is decided this year, is something that no other team can say. We have won a clutch race at Phoenix. I think that is a big deal for us. Hopefully we can pull it off again.”
The one thing on Thursday that was clear though was the sense that they don’t necessarily feel too bad for Kevin Harvick not being in the final four. Logano, says that he doesn’t feel bad for any of his competitors on the track and Elliott didn’t want to talk about someone now in the final round because it’s counterproductive. Hamlin, says he has talked to Harvick and that he still expects to race Harvick for the win on Sunday, but it will just be Harvick not winning a championship at the end of it.
“I continued to have conversations with Kevin this week, just talking about the season and kind of — it’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to go head to head and things like that, even though we will, it’s just different,” Hamlin said. “Most of the year we kind of looked at it’s head to head, me and him, right. I think obviously in my mind he was deserving of racing for a championship but didn’t earn it because of the system, right. He had a couple mediocre finishes, not races but just finishes, and it didn’t allow him to move on, even though he’s put together just an unbelievable season.
“We’ve had those conversations, and certainly I’m not going to view if we win it any different whether he was in or out I guess you could say. I feel proud that we made it, and this is a great accomplishment for our team, and we’re obviously very worthy of the championship if we do get it done.”
They all said that everyone knows the rules coming into each season and that it’s the same for all of them. They all want to win a championship when it’s all said and done and don’t care who the other three drivers are that they’re racing for it.
Hamlin made the best point though. Would Harvick take a three win season and a loss in the Championship 4 over a nine win season and not making the Championship 4? He feels like Harvick would take the nine win season like he just had. Hamlin, says he would definitely take the nine win season himself.
“I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Hamlin continued. “I mean, who wouldn’t be. I mean, I’ve talked to Rodney (Childers), I’ve talked to Kevin, and yeah, I mean, I understand their pain. I mean, it easily could have been the other way around, right, and they’re sitting there and they’re talking to us about, man, it sucks, you guys deserve it but you’re not there, right.
“It could have went either way, but luckily we were on the good end of it, but certainly I understand — I can understand the pain they probably feel.
“I don’t think that anyone — it would be hard for me to say, and you probably should ask them, but would they take a three-win season and make it to the Final Four and not winning a championship or nine wins and not making the Final Four? I wouldn’t, I would take the nine wins and move on. It’s been a great season.”
Another thing discussed is the race itself. How will it look? Logano has an advantage by winning the last race and they don’t want to change a whole lot to what they had from March where you have someone like Elliott who has had ho-hum results at Phoenix lately. Elliott, will be making changes to his car and hope that they work.
“There’s definitely things you can go back on,” Logano said of the spring race at Phoenix. “That’s really all we have, to be honest with you. We don’t have the opportunity to try many new things without practice, right? You don’t want to go too far outside of the box. You know what worked for you in the spring. We had a very fast car, overcame a lot of adversity, still won the race. It just shows that we had a very good car.
“We can make some tweaks here and there to the setup probably, some things that we feel very confident in will be better, but we’re not going to step way outside the box. It’s just kind of what we got. Even though it feels like a year and a half ago when we were out there, that’s really what we have to go back on, is our notes from that race.”
As Keselowski puts it, if you’re not improving, you’re losing. You have to make tweaks to where they said even with dominating Richmond and Loudon and bringing the same car as his race wins there to Phoenix, they’ll be adjusting.
Elliott, is adjusting too.
“Looking to Phoenix, I think what is going to make the difference out there is a good week of preparation, a good week of making the right decisions on the car, taking what we had there in the spring and tweaking on it, making it better,” said Elliott. “You’re not going to go back there with what we had in the spring and be good. Everybody is always getting better, always improving.
“We want to do some of that and hopefully we can improve and be better than the rest.”
Hamlin, says that they’re going in blind. They got some crash damage early and never were able to test much setup help for the Fall. They’ve got no data for this weekend in a sense he said.
“Well, you know, there’s certainly some disadvantages,” said Hamlin. “One of them is self-inflicted, is that we didn’t have the spring race to test. Where I think we’re really good as a race team is adapting from one race early in the year to adapting and making adjustments and being better at that race in the second time around.
“I got in a wreck so early in the spring that I tore up the car and we didn’t get any good data to base a setup off of, so we’re going to have to go from scratch there, where my competitors ran pretty much all the race and got some good information. But hey, that’s what computers are for, right? I give my best shot and best guess what we need to work on and learn from, and let the guys at JGR figure out what they need to put under me.
“That’s one disadvantage. The other is we can’t lean on last year’s success. Last year the aerodynamic package was completely different on the car, so you can’t take any past results and apply them to this weekend whatsoever in my mind. I think it’s just — it would be naïve to do that.”
When on the track too, they all note that while this is an evenly matched final round, they also expect all four to be up front battling for the win and hope the other 36 cars on track give them the respect. Logano though, isn’t focusing on anyone else but their team, Keselowski feels like he has used up a lot of his favors with other drivers while Elliott says that as the years have gone on, non championship drivers haven’t tip toed as much around the title contenders and are racing their own race too.
As far as strategy, they all note that you can’t afford to give up track position. They all have it and note that passing is going to be more difficult on Sunday than it maybe would be at Homestead in terms of making up ground from the back. There are no real strategy calls. Tires don’t mean as much at Phoenix as they do in Homestead. The crew chiefs say this will be a pretty straight forward race so long as mistakes aren’t made.
They all agree, all four crew chiefs and all four drivers that you’re going to have to be perfect to win Sunday’s championship.