AVONDALE, AZ — 35 races are in the books. Nine playoff races down, one to go. Four drivers enter today’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale with one goal in mind – championship. But, are each playing with house money?
See, this is a different era. The champion on Sunday isn’t going to be won on points. For 35 races of a NASCAR Cup Series season, points matter. For the four championship eligible drivers in Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), stage points don’t matter at all. It’s whomever crosses the finish first among them.
Is your season defined off one race?
The drivers competing for the title don’t necessarily think so. They think that the season is made by making it to the Championship 4. Everything else is an added bonus.
Kevin Harvick won nine times in 2020. He’s not in the final round. Would he take three wins and a final round defeat or nine wins and no Championship 4? That’s a question Denny Hamlin asked and said that he would take the nine wins.
Brad Keselowski said that bonuses are to be made by Championship 4 appearances. Joey Logano wants championship trophies, but does acknowledge that the final race is run differently than anything else all season.
That’s why this race will be different. Here are five things to watch.
Championship To Be Won
This is the first thing for obvious reasons. All the attention is on Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. One of them will win the title on Sunday evening from the Arizona desert. That’s going to garner the most attention from this point forward.
All four are confident but the one that boasts the most confidence is Logano. Can he back that confidence up with a second title?
Bump And Run…To A Championship?
For the first time under this playoff era, the season finale will take place at the Phoenix Raceway. Since 2004, when this playoff era started, the final race of the season always concluded at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Even in the winner takes all format that began in 2014, all six prior years were always decided in South Florida.
Now, we go to Phoenix, a place where drivers may be able to use their bumpers more. But, will they?
Chase Elliott got revenge on Denny 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. Kevin 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.”
How To Non Championship Drivers Race The Final 4 Members?
We’ve never seen a non Championship 4 driver win the final race of the season under this format that was adopted in 2014. Now that we’re at Phoenix though and the four drivers in this field don’t necessarily have the strongest of careers here, is the door opened for a non championship driver to win Sunday’s race?
Denny Hamlin finished 20th this past spring and while he does have three top five finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, two of which were under the old racing package. He has three total top five finishes in his last eight Phoenix races overall.
Chase Elliott has two top five finishes in his career on this track. Brad Keselowski has two since 2015 and Joey Logano two since 2016.
Kevin Harvick has nine wins in 2020 and nine at Phoenix overall too. He was runner-up in March. Kyle Busch won a race in the Round of 8 and wasn’t championship eligible and he has five straight top three finishes on this track and nine top four’s in his last 10 Phoenix starts. Ryan Blaney is hot on the season and was third in both races a year ago. Alex Bowman has three straight top six finishes on the season and good on his home state track.
But, how do those drivers not in the Championship 4 race the ones that are?
“I feel like the ones I’ve been a part of, I feel like I’ve really tried to let those guys fight it out, especially if those cars are good, which it seems like they have been in the fast, up front battling,” Elliott said on how he expects the drivers not in the championship to race him on Sunday. “I’ve tried to do that for sure.
“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. 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.
“You hope you get some respect. You hope those guys will give you that. Whether they will or won’t, I don’t know. Never done it. But we’ll find out. I do think the dynamic has changed a little bit as time has gone on. Hopefully we’re fast enough where it doesn’t matter.”
Denny Hamlin agreed. He says he gives drivers breaks all season in hopes to build up a “friendship bank.” He hopes he can cash in some favors on Sunday from them.
“I believe there’s checks and balances.” Hamlin said. “I believe that there’s — that’s what me and my friends call it, friendship bank. You have deposits and withdrawals. We talked about this last year. Yeah, I mean, I’ve cut a lot of competitors breaks, especially at the end of stages, letting guys stay on the lead lap and things like that, and yeah, sure, you hope it comes back around, but there are no practices of that. Drivers have really, really short memories, depending on whether it’s good or bad for them.
“But I believe I’m in a very good position with my competitors that I’ve cut breaks to. But not everyone will see it that way. I mean, and that’s okay. I’m going to go out there and try to earn it any way that I can, the easy way, the hard way, but certainly I believe that when it comes down to the final race, and I’ve seen it in the past, that if you’re typically a guy that carries favors with people, I’ve noticed in the final race they cut you breaks.
“I try to put as many deposits as I can throughout the year when it really doesn’t cost me much, but it would be a benefit for them to hopefully get that in return. But if I don’t, I definitely don’t hold any grudges whatsoever.”
The Team Penske guys though, well they don’t have a lot of friends on the track. They’re less optimistic on how guys will race them.
“I don’t know if cashing in is the right word,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know if I have many of those in the bank. Hopefully you don’t need them. You know, if you just go out there and execute, if the team brings a great car, driver does a great job, pit crew executes, we won’t need any favors. I can’t say I’ve been really thinking about that too much.”
Logano, he’s not going to be focused on how others may or may not race him. He’s just going to focus on themselves.
“I got to just run my race. You have to continue doing what you’ve done to get to this point, what’s been successful for myself as a race car driver, the way we race. We need to continue doing that. That’s what we’ll continue doing.”
You Have To Be Perfect On Sunday
The champion on Sunday is going to be the one who has no mistakes made during the course of the 312 Lap race. No speeding penalties. No loose wheels. No loose lug nuts. No crash damage. No flat tires. Nothing. You have to be absolutely perfect this weekend.
See, Homestead was a place to where you could make up ground if any of those things occurred early enough. You have 1.5-miles of track to pass on as things get spread out. Phoenix, well it’s not. It’s a 1/2 mile shorter without a lot of real estate to make up a lot of ground on.
You only have 312 Miles from start to finish. Homestead was 88 miles longer on a bigger, wider track.
Plus, this race so long as cautions don’t fall in the middle of a pit sequence, will be pretty straight forward according to the crew chiefs. Homestead was too with as any caution would fly, tires would go on. Phoenix you may be able to do a strategy play, but if cautions don’t fall right, it’s not going to work.
So, being perfect is how this title is going to be won among four very evenly matched drivers.
End Of An Era
There’s a lot that’s ending on Sunday too that’s going to possibly get overlooked. Jimmie Johnson will make as of now, his final NASCAR Cup Series start. The 83 race winner and seven time champion is moving to INDYCAR next year.
His former crew chief Chad Knaus is also walking away from the pit box for the final time this weekend too. He will take a larger role in house at Hendrick Motorsports.
Clint Bowyer is retiring and trading his fire suit for a regular suit and moving to the Fox Sports broadcast booth next year.
Then you have the Leavine Family Racing and German Racing teams closing up shop as well and making their final NASCAR starts in general.
Championship Could Come Down To Final Restart
The four NASCAR Cup Series crew chiefs each said on the media zoom call earlier this week that pit strategy may not be much of a factor this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. They all felt that if the cautions didn’t fly in bad situations, then they should be pretty straight forward races this weekend.
See, they also felt like they had to be perfect in every aspect of the race too. You can’t get caught up in any crash damage on track. No way could you afford a slow pit stop, a speeding penalty, loose wheel’s, missing lug nuts, etc. The crew chiefs also felt like they had to be perfect on their pit calls too.
With only 1-miles of real estate to race on, you don’t have the same luxury at Phoenix than you did at Homestead to make up lost ground.
But, through the first two races of the weekend thus far, pit calls very much have decided the final outcome of the Truck Series and Xfinity Series’ races.
Brett Moffitt had the championship won in the Truck Series on Friday night. He was all but checked out from the field and trying to hold off Grant Enfinger for his second championship in three years. Enfinger, had pit earlier from sixth place for new tires. He had nothing to lose. His Truck was fading backwards and unless they went off strategy, a championship wasn’t going to be won. He gave up sixth for new tires and would restart 12th. Five laps later, he was back up to where he pit from in sixth. Then, a few laps later, he was in the top five. Then, the top three. Then, the caution came. Moffit, couldn’t afford to pit now. He had already set his path. Enfinger was there and had fresher tires. No need to pit.
Instead, the other two contenders did pit. Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith restarted eighth and ninth respectively on the final overtime restart. They’d finish the race 1-2 and show that tires and pit calls do mean something at Phoenix.
On Saturday, a similar thing occurred.
Ausitn Cindric had the best long run car. He had the best car in general. He inherited the lead after his final pit stop when a caution came out on Lap 169 for Joe Graf Jr. Justin Allgaier had to make something happen. He pit again for his final set of tires. He would get a big jump on the ensuing restart and move up to second, but Cindric was pulling away. He was just too good. The championship was in his sights.
Unfortunately, Chase Briscoe spun in Turn 4 with three laps-to-go in regulation and here we were with another pit call to set up the overtime ending. Cindric, saw what happened to Moffitt when he didn’t pit from the lead on Friday night. So, he gave the lead to Allgaier knowing that Allgaier had no new tires and also knew that only 10 cars were on the lead lap too. The worst he would restart was ninth due to Briscoe bringing out the caution and would definitely have to pit. Eight lead lap cars would end up pitting which put Cindric in third on the final restart with much fresher tires.
Now, what happens in the Cup race on Sunday? Will we be 3-for-3 for overtime finishes this weekend? So far, they’re 1-for-2 with it playing out in favor of the faster car winning.
You know not all four cars on Sunday can pit under the final caution if it does indeed happen because some have to go off strategy and put themselves in a position to win.