AVONDALE, AZ — 9 weeks are down, 1 to go in this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. With what started with 16 drivers hoping to earn the championship trophy this November at the Phoenix Raceway is down to four coming to the Arizona desert with one shot to win a title.
Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Tyler Reddick were bounced in the first round.
Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick, William Byron and Alex Bowman joined them in the second round.
Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch were just eliminated in the third round at Martinsville.
Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. now make up the Championship 4. It’s a fitting grouping. You get the defending series champion who won this very race in this very moment last year trying to repeat against the two best drivers all season and.
Hamlin and Larson have combined to win six of the nine playoff races (67%), 10 of the 18 stages (56%) and lead 56% of all laps (1,589 of 2,862).
Can Elliott and Truex Jr. best these two?
The driver among these four to cross the finish line first on Sunday takes home some shiny new hardware as the season champion. Which one will be it?
- Case For – He’s been the best driver all year. He’s won nine times and led well over 2,200 laps. In fact, he’s won four times this postseason with 831 combined laps led in nine races to go along with five stage wins as well as being in the top four in 11 of the 18 stages run. The thing is, just twice since 2016 did the #1 seed entering the playoffs win the championship. Larson was the No. 1 seed this year. It happened in 2017 and 2019. Does that odd season streak continue? 2017, 2019…2021? On top of that, we’ve had this playoff format since 2014. In the seven years of this, we’ve seen six different champions. Larson wasn’t one of them. Also, the last two Hendrick drivers to make the Championship 4, won the title too. He did win four times on 750 tracks this season including in the playoffs at Bristol. Also, having won the opening race of the Round of 8 has given him time to get his Phoenix car truly dialed in where everyone else had at least an extra week where they didn’t. On top of that, with practice being back this weekend, the haulers have to leave earlier this year than last, meaning the last two drivers to stamp their names into the Final Four have minimal time to prepare their car while Larson’s has been ready for multiple weeks.
- Case Against – See above about the No. 1 seed. It’s only happened twice. Also, only twice in the seven years of this format did a driver that won the most races during the course of a season actually win the title itself. Plus, Larson is 0-for-14 at Phoenix with a finish of seventh this past spring. He’s won four times on 750 tracks but only two of them were on actual ovals. Larson was seventh in Phoenix (1 lap led) this past spring, fifth (0 laps led) and 14th in Martinsville, 20th (0 laps led) and third (8 laps led) in the two stops in Richmond, second in Dover, seventh in Loudon (0 laps led) and did win at Bristol (175 laps led).The guys he’s racing with for the title have actually been better on 750 tracks, mainly Phoenix over Larson.
- Case For – He was in this spot last year and won at this very race at this very track. Elliott, has also had very similar numbers this season compared to last too. Nothing has really changed. At Phoenix, he was fifth in the spring too, so it’s entirely possible to pick up a second straight title. Also, he comes in after finishing second in Kansas and leading a race-high 289 laps last Sunday in Martinsville.
- Case Against – Repeat Champ? Not likely — Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to repeat as a Cup Series champion. He did so in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since, no one has repeated as a champion. Jeff Gordon was the last before Johnson to do so as he did it in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Elliott accomplish this feat in 2021? Plus, Elliott hasn’t been great on 750 tracks this year. Elliott, was fifth (Phoenix), second and 16th (Martinsville), 12th and 4th (Richmond), third (Dover), 18th (Loudon) and 25th (Bristol) on short tracks this season. Also, in order to win the title, you’re likely going to have to win the race and Elliott hasn’t won a race since July 4 and has also not won on an oval since here last November.
- Case For – He’s been in this position before. This is his third straight Championship 4. Plus, trends say that the eventual champion has actually started each season off slow – It actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Just last year, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons Another trend is a new champion. We’ve had six new champions in the seven years of this format. Hamlin, fits that trend. Hamlin was winless in the first 26 races of 2021. Also, he’s been at his best on 750 short tracks this season too. One could make the case as THE best. Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix this past spring (33 laps led), third and in Martinsville (276 laps led), second in both races at Richmond (207 laps led, 197 laps led), seventh at Dover, 10th in Loudon (1 lap led) and ninth in Bristol. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin. At Phoenix in particular, he has nine top 10 finishes in his last 11 including four of his last five inside of the top five.
- Case Against – See the first sentence above. He’s been in this position before. He’s just not ever won. That’s the only case against you can give to Hamlin. Also, Hamlin started off the postseason with 545 laps led in the first four races. In the last five though, he’s only been out front for 136 laps led. He’s not had a finish in any stage better than fifth and that’s only happened twice with no finishes better than fifth overall since his Vegas win over a month ago.
Martin Truex Jr.
- Case For – He’s won three times on 750 tracks this season including one being at this very track back in March. He’s also making his fifth Championship 4 appearance. No one has more. Experience is a factor.
- Case Against – He missed the final round at Phoenix last year. He’s in just his second year with James Small and has only had two top five finishes in his last seven starts on the season.
- Playoff points during the regular season matter – 3 of the top 4 in playoff points entering the 2017 season made the Championship 4. In 2018, it was the top 3 making it to the final round. For 2019, all four in the top four of playoff points accumulated entering the playoffs made it to the Championship 4 while last year saw 4 of the top five.