AVONDALE, AZ — The top five of the final finishing order of the Season Finale 500 couldn’t have been scripted much better. The Championship 4 drivers coming in 1-2-3-4 with Jimmie Johnson on his way out the door in NASCAR with a fifth place run in his 686th and final NASCAR Cup Series start.
Seemed great right?
Well, are changes needed to spice up the season finale though? Not to rain on NASCAR or Chase Elliott’s parade. He’s a fitting champion and NASCAR did a hell of a job to get us through a season in crisis. Yes, the race had just four cautions and I applaud that. I’m okay with it. I’m glad we didn’t see any fluke cautions for lapped cars at the end of the race to alter the course of the finish. The fastest car won outright. All of that is great.
But, to get the Championship 4 drivers 1-2-3-4 again, is that becoming dull yet? I don’t think it’s a fluke anymore. It still seems like it’s their race up front in their own zip code and everyone else follows multiple seconds back.
We all wondered if a change of venue would change up they way that these season finale races would run. At the Homestead-Miami Speedway, all six years were essentially a battle between the Championship 4 drivers and everyone else. It was confusing for the less common fan.
For a majority of the final races at Homestead, the championship drivers ran 1-2-3-4. It was a great storyline but made us wonder what’s the point of having the other cars on the track.
But, with coming to Phoenix, maybe this was a place to where this changed. Can this be a race with full participation again?
Plus, the four members of the Championship 4 weren’t necessarily at their best at Phoenix. Yes, they had won the last two races run there with Denny Hamlin winning this race last year and Joey Logano winning in the spring, but Hamlin had just three top five finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts overall. Elliott, had two top five finishes at Phoenix ever. Logano had just two top five finishes on the 1-mile track since 2016 with Brad Keselowski only having two since 2015.
But, despite Elliott starting last on Sunday, they still were 1-2-3-4 in both stages and the only ones to put up any fight for the lead all day.
It only took 48 laps for them to take the hold of the top four spots and they’d pretty much remain that way for the rest of the way. They yet again finished 1-2-3-4 in both stages and also in the final finishing order. In the end, the fifth place car was 12.430-seconds off of the lead and four seconds behind the fourth place finisher which was the last Championship 4 member.
Factor in the lack of cautions, four overall on the day, three of which being for stage breaks and the competition caution and you get a pretty straight forward race.
“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 hoped that he could cash in some favors on Sunday from them. He honestly didn’t need 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.”
While the gripe can be that the same four Championship 4 guys are finishing 1-2-3-4, the case for Phoenix though is that these were the four best on 750 horsepower tracks. Elliott, won four races on them, two of which on road courses, two on short tracks. He had won three of the final five races to close out 2020, so it’s not like this was a fluke champion. The best car at this point of the year won.
The second best car on 750 horsepower tracks finished second. Keselowski, had three wins on 750 tracks including having the very car that he won two of them on for Sunday’s race. Elliott’s car was brand new, Keselowski had a used car.
Was that difference?
Logano, was third best on these tracks. He finished third. He won at Phoenix back in March to give this trio eight wins on 750 tracks.
Hamlin was worst on them and he finished fourth. With the addition of more 750 tracks next year, maybe the onus this offseason is to make yourself great on them and have a fighters chance next November at Phoenix. The best on these tracks were the ones racing for the title on Sunday. That’s why we get another year of 1-2-3-4 but this one was maybe warranted.