NASCAR Pre-Race Media: Championship 4 race preview (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) at Phoenix

TRACK: Phoenix Raceway (1 mile oval) DISTANCE: 312 Laps – STAGE 1: 75 Laps, Stage 2: 115 Laps, FINAL STAGE 122 LAPS, 312 Miles)

Race Preview

The preview for this is simple. One of the four drivers that’s left in the NASCAR Cup Series championship is more than likely going to win Sunday’s race. Since this Championship 4 format was added in 2014, all seven years have seen the race winner win the championship too. While this is an entirely different track now with Sunday’s finale being the second at Phoenix and every other year it being at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, let’s call a spade a spade, the race winner will still likely be among the Championship 4 drivers.

It’s 7-for-7 in this format but 2-for-42 prior.

So, let’s just make this preview short and simple – how do the four drivers that can win the championship this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway fare on the 1-mile tracks. Also, how do the teams do?

Back in March saw Team Penske go 1-2-3 in Stage 1, 1-4-5 in Stage 2, 1-4-10 in the race and lead 63% (197 of 312) of the laps. JGR went 4-6 (Hamlin, KyBusch) in Stage 1, 2-3 in Stage 2 and 1-3 in the race with leading 31% (97 of 312) of the laps. Combined, that’s 294 of the 312 laps (94%) led with finishing 1-2-3-4 in the race and 1-2-3-6 in Stage 1 and 1-2-3-4-5 in Stage 2.

Last year, Penske and JGR had 3 of the 4 cars in this very race.

This year’s participants are Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr.. Larson and Hamlin have had a heavyweight fight for the prize all season.

See, Hamlin started off the season with eight top five finishes in the first nine races. Larson though picked up where Hamlin couldn’t in putting his car in victory lane. Where Hamlin dominated top fives, Larson hogged top two’s. That allowed him to make up 154 points on Hamlin from Mothers Day weekend through the regular season finale at Daytona.

But, once the playoffs started, Hamlin showed that he’s not going to go away. These two traded jabs in a friendly manner throughout this entire postseason.

Hamlin won the Southern 500 to kickoff the playoffs while Larson won the Bristol Night Race to end the first round. Hamlin then won the opening race of the Round of 12 in Las Vegas before Larson won the last race of the second round on the Charlotte ROVAL.

Combined, they won 67% (6-for-9) of the playoff races, won 56% of the stages (10-for-18) and led 55% of the laps (1,589-for-2,862). Between them, they won five of the nine first stages, five of the nine second stages and when they weren’t winning stages, they were in the top four of them.

Hamlin has eight finishes inside the top four in the 18 stages run with Larson scoring 11.

They’ve dominated the postseason. Now, they have company in a winner take all format at Phoenix. The first one among Larson, Hamlin, Chase Elliott and to cross the finish line Sunday in Phoenix will earn the season championship. What if it’s not one of either Larson or Hamlin?

It can happen.

Larson led just one lap earlier this year at Phoenix. Hamlin, has been in this position before but never taken home the championship as well as entering this weekend backing his way in. He led 545 laps, scored two wins, four stage wins and a top four finish in every stage at that run, in the first four playoff races. His last five races and 10 stages? 1 finish better than seventh in the stages, 33 laps led and no finish better than fifth overall.

Can he turn it back around in Phoenix?

The door is open now. Elliott just won this race and took home the title last year. Truex won here in the spring.

Kyle Larson

This isn’t one of his better tracks. Larson, does have two top fives in his last three there but was only seventh in the spring race after leading just one lap. Can he find the speed to win? His teammate Chase Elliott did last year.

His finishes on short ovals this year – 7th (Phoenix), 5th (Martinsville spring), 18th (Richmond spring), 2nd (Dover), 7th (Loudon), 6th (Richmond playoffs), 1st (Bristol playoffs) and 14th (Martinsville Fall).

Can they do enough to make him better with a championship on the line in a couple of weeks at Phoenix?

Martin Truex Jr.

He finally won at Phoenix in the spring. It was a huge load off of his shoulders because quite frankly, until he joined Joe Gibbs Racing, he never was much of a threat there either. But, Truex, has since finished third in the Fall of 2017, fifth in the spring race of 2018, runner-up in the spring race of 2019 and sixth and 10th respectively in his last two November starts to go along with his March win. That makes his a viable “favorite” especially since he won at Martinsville and Richmond in the spring too. On short track this year, Truex won at Phoenix (64 laps led) and Martinsville (20 laps led) in the spring and Richmond (80 laps led) during the playoffs. He was also fifth in Richmond (107 laps led) this spring after what should have been another top two or three result that day and fourth last weekend in Martinsville’s return trip.

Denny Hamlin 

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has 9 top 10 finishes in his last 11 starts in the desert. Hamlin, has four top five finishes in his last five Phoenix starts as well as being at his best on short tracks this season. He finished third in Phoenix (33 laps led), third in Martinsville (276 laps led spring, 103 in the fall), 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.

Chase Elliott 

This is a tough one, but for his odds, why not? Elliott, enters Phoenix with three finishes in the desert of 14th or worse in his last six tries. But, he won this race last year, was fifth in the spring and has five top sevens in his last eight on this track.

Sleeper? Non Playoff Winner

It’s happened 40 times in the previous 42 years of racing before we got to this Win and Your In Format in 2014. So, while the odds are low of a sleeper winning, here’s the top ones to watch if so.

Kyle Busch 

This may be one of his best tracks now. “Rowdy” enters Phoenix with 10 top seven finishes including nine of them being in the top four in his last 12 tries. In 2018 and again in 2019, he was first or second in both events. He finished third in the spring race of 2020 but 11th and 25th since though too. Busch was eighth and ninth in Richmond, 10th and second at Martinsville, 25th in Phoenix this past spring, 27th at Dover, 37th in Loudon and 21st in Bristol on short tracks.

Brad Keselowski

He was second in this race last year and fourth in the spring.

Joey Logano

You need to use him now. Logano, didn’t used to be among the ones to beat at Phoenix but over his last five starts, he has five consecutive top 10 finishes including a win in the spring race last year, a third in this race a year ago as well as a runner-up this past spring. In the spring race here, he led the most laps (143) too. He was sixth (6 laps led) and 10th in Martinsville, third (49 laps led) and fifth (0 laps led) in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win in Loudon (0 laps led) as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney in Loudon.

Ryan Blaney 

One of the top Penske drivers at this track. Blaney, has four top 10’s in his last five at Phoenix including a pair of third place runs in 2019, sixth in this race last year and 10th in the spring. He was 10th in Phoenix (35 laps led) but did sweep both stages though, 11th in both races at Martinsville (swept both stages in the spring), 14th (25 laps led) and 10th in Richmond (0 laps led), 12th at Dover, fifth in Loudon (64 laps led) and fourth at Bristol (45 laps led).

Kevin Harvick 

The proverbial “king of the desert” has been astounding in Phoenix. Since 2012, Harvick has seven wins alone to go along with 10 top two finishes (19 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than seventh just twice in those 19 starts too.

Now he can attempt to become just the sixth driver to win 10 or more races at a single track with a win this weekend:

Drivers with 10 or More NASCAR Cup Series Wins at a Single Track

Race Winners No. of Tracks Tracks With 10 or More Wins
Richard Petty 5 Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11) Daytona (10)
Darrell Waltrip 3 Bristol (12), Martinsville (11), North Wilkesboro (10)
Jimmie Johnson 1 Dover (11)
David Pearson 1 Darlington (10)
Dale Earnhardt 1 Talladega (10)

In saying that, his only deterrent is, he hasn’t won with this new configuration.

Harvick hasn’t exactly been like the Harvick of old at Phoenix lately. While he does have seven wins to go along with nine top two finishes in his last 19 starts, to go along with finishing worse than sixth just twice since 2012, he’s not won since the track was reconfigured. He’s 0-for-6.

This change has been his kryptonite you could say. It’s kind of like we all saying if Kyle Larson could ever get to the Championship 4 when the final race was held at Homestead, then just give him the trophy in prerace. Well, we all thought that about Harvick when the final round was moved to Phoenix for last year and this one. Harvick, was eliminated in the Round of 8 a year ago and even if he made the final round, he said his car wasn’t good enough to compete for a championship. He finished seventh that day in November.

Five of his last six Phoenix results have seen him finish fifth or worse. 10 of his previous 13 on the old configuration saw him finish fourth or better.

William Byron

He has a quiet three straight top 10’s in Phoenix including ninth in this race a year ago and eighth in the spring. He enters hot with having a very good Round of 12 and Round of 8. He should have three top three finishes in the last seven races.

Christopher Bell

He was ninth in the spring race in a car that’s good at Phoenix. Bell, like Byron, is arguably one of the hottest non playoff drivers are the moment. He’s got three top fives and four top eight’s in the last eight playoff races run.

Aric Almirola 

Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola has been stout in Phoenix. The Florida native has finished in the top 10 in five of his last seven starts including an eighth place run in March of last year and 11th this year.

Drivers To Fade

Alex Bowman

He has never scored a top 10 in seven starts at Phoenix with HMS.

Tyler Reddick

He was 33rd, 19th and 29th in his three Phoenix starts in Cup.

Austin Dillon

In 17 career starts in Cup at Phoenix, Dillon has no top fives and just two top 10’s.

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