NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Championship 4 race at Phoenix

Do Championship 4 Teammates Help Each Other?

Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports are in the equal conundrum where you have two drivers for each fighting for a championship on Sunday and two more not. With each making up 50% of the final round field, how do you treat the race weekend?

We have practice and qualifying back. With having two shots to win, do teammates help each other out knocking you could potentially be helping a teammate beat you for NASCAR’s most coveted prize.

“It’s been, I don’t know, just exciting,” Larson said on what it’s been like working with Chase Elliott this week. “Really it’s the most time we’ve spent probably with each other all year just I think because we’re competing in a championship together and doing stuff together.

“Yeah, it’s just cool, awesome for Rick (Hendrick) to have a 50% shot of winning another championship. Hopefully Chase or I can get it done, bring another championship home.”

As far as keeping secrets in house being hush hush this week? Larson said that’s not been the case.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I mean, as far as the car side of things go, no. I think my team, the 9 team, every team really has been preparing their Phoenix car for a while now. Our teams do a good job of working together. I think that’s really important.

“As far as, like, Chase and I go, drivers go, I don’t know, you don’t talk that much about anything anyways. There’s nothing to keep a secret about anyways.”



Will Practice Matter?

For the first time since Indy back on Aug. 14, practice is back. Last year, we just showed up to race here like we did for the previous 32 races. This season, eight of the 36 races featured practice and among those were the inaugural races (Bristol Dirt, COTA, Nashville, Road America, Indy) as well as for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and now Phoenix.

The thing is, there’s not much of it. We have just one single 50 minute session on Friday afternoon.

Then you get qualifying back on Saturday to set the field.

“So we’ve had practice a few times this year. The couple times we’ve had it on ovals it’s more just been, you know, we haven’t had to work on our car much,” Larson said. “I hope it’s that way tomorrow. We can kind of just get into a rhythm, figure out how the track is changing, stuff like that, plan ahead for adjustments you might need to make.

“Excited about qualifying. We haven’t qualified much this year, so it is a bit nerve-wracking. I think all of us are probably excited to go qualifying again.”

Elliott, said that even with practice back, his No. 9 Chevrolet will roll out of the garage on Friday with a setup on it ready to go for the race.

“We haven’t had a practice in a minute,” the defending series champion said. “We’ll just have to wait and see, but hopefully make the right choices and kind of tune in what we feel like will be the best.

“Obviously we set the car up and left the shop with what we feel is the best to line up and go race. This is how we would line up and go run the race if we didn’t have any practice. We’ll just have to try and improve that a little bit.

“I think you can read into it as much or as little as you want. For me, I’m just going to focus on the way I want the car to drive and try to get it as close to that natural feeling that I want.

“We’ll get it as close as we can and we’ll see where we stack up on Sunday. So this deal is not over until the checkered flag waves. We all know that. Getting tore up over how Friday goes is I think doing yourself and your team a pretty large disservice.”

With only having 50 minutes allotted, that’s not a ton of time to get your car dialed in. Can you overthink it?

“Yes, there’s that,” Larson said. “The practice is so short that you don’t — I don’t believe you have a ton of time to dial yourself out. I think it’s just one practice session. I feel like if there was two practice sessions, that would open up the opportunity with that break in between to throw big changes in the car. Yes, you could hit on something or dial yourself out.

“Right now, hopefully everything is smooth, our car is handling right, because as of now we don’t plan to really make many adjustments.”

Elliott though said that he feels like practice and qualifying won’t make a difference in Sunday’s race whether they had it or not.

“No I do not,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to really change anything much. I feel like the same guys are going to be good whether you practice for 15 days and 14 hours of practice or you don’t practice at all. I think the good team and the good driver stepping up and adapting to different circumstances is likely going to prevail. Probably 10 times out of 10 times.

“I think less practice for sure. I just don’t see where it changes a whole lot. Obviously having a new car is a little different, but outside of that, if you have something and have a package that you’ve had for a period of time, I just don’t see any need in wasting the time and money.

“I just don’t see where it changes the event all that much. I don’t think it changes it at all, to be honest.

“I mean, I feel like typically the fastest guy ends up winning the race anyway. I feel like 400 or 500 miles later, who cares. Typically it works itself out in my experience.

Denny Hamlin agreed.

“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But these teams are so dialed. I honestly believe that no practice and qualifying is better for us. I think our process works, and it works really well. We usually hit the balance pretty close right off the truck.

“I think our goals and practice in particular is just making sure we’ve checked out all the other things that we need to make sure we’ve got in line for the race.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be necessarily we’re going to wholesale our car or panic based off of times. We know we’re going to do the best job we can, dial the car in, go race what we brought.

“You’re not going to change that much, in my opinion, in practice.”

Truex Jr though sees it differently. He feels it’s a plus to get extra track time before a race.

“You know, it’s tough, but it’s always nice to have a gauge before the race. These days we show up, we don’t know what we have, we just go race. At the end of the day you’re like, Okay, this is what we had; wasn’t good enough. We need to work on this, work on that for next week.

“You never had a chance to recover if you were off, whether it was a bad decision or maybe your car just wasn’t fast enough. Usually it comes down to at this level, with the level of team that I have, we have great cars, great equipment, great people. It usually comes down to decisions. Maybe we didn’t bring the right setup or we went too aggressive on this or not enough aggressive in this area.

 “I think for us this weekend, it just gives us all a chance, that if we do make a bad decision or get too aggressive or not aggressive enough, we can react and try to give our team the best opportunity possible to go out there and win the race.

“It’ll be more heads up this way, I think. It’ll be more in the team’s hands because we do get to work on the cars and we do get to take some chances on the setup and try some things and try to find some speed.”

He also says that he missed the three day format for more than just being on track.

“Yeah, I don’t mind it. I think it’s fun. The biggest thing that I think we all miss about the old schedule is spending time with our team, in the hauler with our guys, and really getting in there and going to work with them and being a part of the process throughout the weekend. That’s something that as a driver that is so special. It’s so fun.

 “I’ve really missed that for the last two years. It’s really been a missing piece of the racing fun for me, so I’m excited about that, spending some time with the guys in the garage, cutting up, having fun, and really just getting down to the nuts and bolts and working with them and getting the car better.”

Still, he’s the only one who feels like this format will shape Sunday’s champion.

“I definitely think it’ll play a factor. I don’t know that — if you could have a crystal ball that you’d say the practice is going to change who wins the race. I don’t know if you could say that. But I think it’s going to change it up. I think it’s going to make it more competitive. I do feel like that. I feel like it really removes the opportunity for somebody to just completely step on their own toes and really make a mistake or a bad decision that hurts them.

“I think it’ll be — I honestly think it’s a more fair competition for four guys to all have practice and go out there and lay it on the line and see who can do the best job.

“I think that’s always — that had always been our strong point. We would always — I can remember — I don’t know how many races we won where we were unloading in practice and we were absolutely God awful, like just terrible. Guys were way off, let’s go to work. We ended up winning the race, and that happened a lot of times.

“There was a lot of times even after practice on Saturday we would wholesale the thing and go out and win. I have a lot of confidence in my team when it comes down to that, and usually if we can get some good laps in practice and get a good feel for the car and get that information and start to work on it, we can make some stuff happen.”



Are Changes Needed To Spice Up The Season Finale?

After seven years of this Championship 4 format, are changes needed to spice up the season finale again? Not to rain on NASCAR’s parade, but it’s starting to get redundant. No one really wants to see the championship drivers 1-2-3-4 again in a class all to themselves. I feel like this format has worked and has improved the racing in general over the course of a season, but when you get to the final race and look up to see the four Championship 4 drivers running 1-2-3-4 for a majority of it, it kind of makes you wonder why we’re running a full race for a full distance when everyone’s just biding their time to get to the end?

Is this becoming dull? Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a fluke anymore. It still seems as if it’s the Championship 4 race up front in their own zip code only then followed by everyone else multiple seconds back.

I mean, in all seven years of this format, the champion has won the final race each and every time. By comparison, the previous format from 2004 though 2013 saw it happen only once. Tony Stewart did so in 2011.

From the start of the Modern Era in 1972 through the end of the 2003 season, when using the old traditional points format, the champion won the season finale just once. Jeff Gordon did at Atlanta in 1998.

That’s 7-for-7 in this format and 2-for-42 prior.

“Oh, yeah, no question,” Truex Jr said on Sunday being a must win. “You look at it every year, the winner comes from the Final Four guys. I think you have to win it to win it.

Hamlin agreed.

“You’ll have to win, there’s no question. There’s no secret that these cars will be up front, probably, 1-2-3-4 at some point.

The Hendrick duo also agreed saying while you just need to beat three cars on Sunday, in order to do so, you’ll have to win.

By that comparison, one could make a case that this format is better than its ever been. The final race means something when a lot of times in the old way, it was clinched before now.

I mean, when really thinking about it, when has the season finale in NASCAR ever really been a barn burner?

But, with how sports are these days, NASCAR is giving it a try to make theirs one. So far, the jury is still out on whether this way that we have it now is truly the best. The nine races prior are great, but is this the best way to crown a champion?

When NASCAR made a change to go from ending the year at Homestead to now at Phoenix, we all wondered if the change of venue would help 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?

Last year it wasn’t.

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.

Plus, you don’t want to be the driver if you’re not fighting for a championship to take someone that is out. This has been a debate this playoffs, but in this instance, you tip toe around them and race them more cleanly than you otherwise would in the other 35 races run during a season.

That usually leads to the championship drivers passing the non championship drivers with ease. With a more cut throat type of postseason across all three national divisions this time around, will Phoenix be like the previous playoff race this Fall or more like the status quo of all the other season finales in this format?

“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,” Chase Elliott said a year ago on how he expects the drivers not in the championship to race him. “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 then saying that he gives drivers breaks all season in hopes to build up a “friendship bank.” That bank had someone try to break into it on Sunday via Alex Bowman.

“I believe there’s checks and balances.” Hamlin said last year too. “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.”

Joey Logano said last year in this situation in the Championship 4 that he wasn’t going to be focused on how others may or may not race him. He was 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.”

The thing is, the four members of the Championship 4 member last year weren’t necessarily at their best in terms of racing at Phoenix. Coming into the race last November, 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 a year ago, they still were 1-2-3-4 in both stages and the only ones to put up any fight for the lead all day.

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 those were the four best on 750 horsepower tracks last season though too. 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 a year ago 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 this past year, maybe the onus on the last offseason was to make yourself great on them and have a fighters chance at Phoenix. The best on these tracks were the ones racing for the title last year That’s why if we get another year of 1-2-3-4 it may be warranted again which leads me to question, is there really anything we can do about it.

Plus, you get a race that rewards the best car that day. It’s not a fluke. Do you really want to see a race where someone takes a championship driver out? What about a fluke way of winning and someone taking home the title too?

I don’t think there’s really anything you can honestly do to help improve the show as long as we race under this format of crowning a champion.



Is It Fair To Judge An Entire Season Based Off Of 1 Race? Does That Put All The Pressure On Larson and Hamlin?

If Kyle Larson or Denny Hamlin don’t win the championship on Sunday, is it fair? I mean, both have been the best drivers all season and enter having won three of the last four races and six of the nine this postseason.

“I mean, I’ve said for many, many weeks now that it would be a disservice if someone other than the two of us didn’t win,” said Hamlin. “I mean, he’s obviously probably the most deserving over the course of the year that he’s had from start to finish.

“But, yeah, the format, you just never know. Nearly it all ended right there in turn three for silly reasons. That’s why I always preach about wish the sample size was bigger. You don’t have somebody else’s mistakes that can take you out of what you’ve done for the whole season.

“Certainly I think when you look at the four that are in it, I think it’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race. I think all of them would be deserving champions. Obviously Kyle would make the most sense.”

Larson agreed.

“I just hope we can, “Larson said. “It’s like hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship now at this point.

“Not that it adds pressure but you can read into it adding pressure that I want to win the championship even more to cap off what’s been a great season.

“I try not to think about it. And I think the more wins you get, hopefully we’re winning the championship in Phoenix, but I feel like the more wins we’ve gotten will make that feeling if I happen to not win, make it easier to swallow I think just because it has been a great year.

“It comes down to one race there in Phoenix. It’s a different style track than we’ve been winning on. But I don’t know. Like I said I try not to think about it. We’ll see how the feeling is. Hopefully we’re celebrating after Phoenix and I don’t have to accept the fact that we didn’t win a championship.

“But either way, yes, it’s been a good season but I want to cap it off with what we all want. So that’s my goal. And I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever.”

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 Martin Truex Jr. 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? 2 finishes better than seventh in the stages, 136 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.

In saying that, there’s a 50% chance that Hamlin or Larson isn’t the winner on Sunday.

How?

Drivers race 35 races one way for an entire season with points on their mind. For the final race, it’s all about just finishing ahead of the other three drivers in the Championship 4. Should you do so, you win the title.

Is that a fair way to judge a full season for a single driver? Do you look at them and say that despite having a great first 35 races, you didn’t beat so and so to win the title?

Kevin Harvick won nine times last year but didn’t take home the crown. Was that a bad season for him? Larson has won nine times this year. If he doesn’t win the title on Sunday, did he have a bad year?

Same for Hamlin.

This could all come down to one final restart. One pit road speeding penalty. One flat tire. These are the best four teams, which his why you literally have 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 feel 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.

Is factoring in all of this fair to judge a champion base how you look at ones season a success or not based off these factors.



AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Will Championship Come Down To A Final Restart?

To piggy back off the point above, the championship could quite literally come down to a final restart on Sunday. What if you have a bad restart or a bad pit stop. Should you be characterized by that?

Pit strategy isn’t much of a factor this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. The crew chief say that if the cautions don’t fly in bad situations, then this should be pretty straight forward race this weekend.

It was last year and has been lately with only 1 of the last 8 races even going to overtime. But, there’s still that chance.

It happened in both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series races last year. Brett Moffitt had the championship won in the Truck Series that 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.

For the NXS race, 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.

Game over.

That’s one factor that isn’t necessarily fair either to base a seasons worth of racing off one final restart.

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