Top 5 non championship things to watch for Sunday’s Season Finale 500 at Phoenix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

AVONDALE, AZ — The most obvious thing to watch for the Championship Week at the Phoenix Raceway is just that, the championship. That’s naturally going to take most, if not all, of the major storylines. But, here are five more that may fly under the radar in the attention department.

The Race For 5th

It’s one thing to be in the Championship 4, but the race to finish fifth as the best of the rest is key too. While championships are becoming harder and harder to win in this new era of NASCAR with a winner-take-all season finale, Championship 4’s are looked upon as a new measuring stick to define one as. How many can you get to. That means being the fifth place finisher is a phenomenal accomplishment too because with all the points reset after each round, the fifth place driver in the final standings is the top points scorer not among the top four. 

That distinction went to Chase Elliott in 2017. For 2018, it was Aric Almirola. Joey Logano (2019) and Kevin Harvick (2020) earned those honors the last two years respectively. 

Now, Harvick is eyeing that feat again. He’s currently sixth in points heading to a good track of his.

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.

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. 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.

That opens the door for Brad Keselowski who was second in this race last year and fourth in the spring. He leads Harvick by five points for fifth entering the weekend. 

His Penske teammate of Ryan 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, 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).

Then you have Joey Logano who 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.

Logano and Blaney are tied for seventh and 15 points back. 

Can Harvick Get A Win To Keep Streak Going?

Kevin Harvick just hasn’t had the speed this season that it takes to win a race. He’s winless in each of his last 42 starts dating back to the beginning of the second round of the playoffs a year ago. The thing is, his No. 4 Ford has actually been gaining speed as the playoffs have gone on. He’s inching closer and closer to a win. Can he finally grab one on Sunday in Phoenix?

He’s won at least one race every season since 2010. He’s also won at least one playoff race every year over the last nine seasons too. Both are is in danger of coming to an end.

See, all seven years of this championship format, a Final Four driver won the season finale. He’s unfortunately not battling for a title on Sunday. 

That likely means Harvick will go into 2022 without a win over his final 43 starts. He’s only led 216 laps all season. By comparison, he led 1,531 last year. In fact, he’s led at least 850 laps every year since 2014 with four of those years him leading at the very minimum 1,384 laps.

He came into this year having won 22 times in a three year span. Now, he may go winless.

The thing is, his next goal isn’t necessarily a win, but to be fifth in points rather.

Kansas was his second straight top five and fourth of the playoffs. By comparison, he had just two in the final 15 races of the regular season. As a result, he’s the top non playoff driver in the standings entering the season finale. 

“There is a lot to race for,” Harvick said. “As you look at it, there’s only four guys that are going to be locked into the  points, we want to finish fifth in the points, and if we can’t win a race, that’s our goal.

“We’ve done a good job throughout the playoffs, and just keeping up with the Chevrolets, in general, is a kind of a gain for us. Everybody has done a good job. Our Subway Ford Mustang was way better than it has been the last two weeks, and we made up some ground.”

With how well he’s running, he’s got a great shot of at least making that happen even though he may go winless on the season. But, if things do go right, Phoenix can be the place he can pick up his first win. 

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.

End Of An Era – Final Race Of This Current Car

Sunday’s race will be the final time that the Gen 6 car hits the race track in the Cup Series. This weekend is the 324th and final race for the current car. It debuted in the 2013 Daytona 500 (Feb. 24, 2013) and ends at Phoenix (Nov. 7, 2021).

This car was prepared for more safety as well as more speed in hopes that it would give more grip and speed to the drivers and more action for the fans. Obviously, several changes have been made to the car over the last eight years, but now we end one era this weekend and begin another next February.

This new car though is completely different than the one from now. From some changes to the aero and downforce, to a spec chassis, to a sequential transmission, to an independent rear suspension, to a new tire design and fueling system, it’s going to forever change the way we not only race on track, but produce pit stops too.

Everything we’ve known in the past in terms of the on track product is going to change. Setups will change. The way the drivers inside the cars race will change. Braking points to driving style to everything in between is going to be altered. The pit crews will change too.

Nothing will be the same.

The other part is the movement of the numbers forward so not only will the car look somewhat different, the numbers being moved forward will completely change the way these things look visually overall.

Final Race For Chip Ganassi Racing And For Brad Keselowski With Team

Sunday will mark the final race for two situations. One is Brad Keselowski will run his 435th and final Cup Series race for Team Penske. It will be emotional for sure as the Michigan native will depart Penske in the offseason and join Roush Fenway Racing as a part owner as well as driver for their team. 

Keselowski, 37, is the all-time winningest driver for the storied organization across all forms of their motorsports ventures. He’s won 72 times for them (35 Cup races, 37 Xfinity Series) overall and also gave Penske his first NASCAR title when he won the 2010 Xfinity Series championship. Two years later, he gave the Captain his first Cup title. In 2018, he gave Penske his first Brickyard 400 win. 

Now, he’s leaving. Sunday’s race in Phoenix will be the last he’ll pilot the No. 2 Ford for the team. 

This is also an end of an era for another storied team. Chip Ganassi Racing is as good as it comes in motorsports. They’ve won 19 driver championships. 14 of which in open wheel and the other five in sports cars. He’s produced four Indy 500 triumphs, multiple 24 Hours of Daytona wins, a Daytona 500 victory and several other races on his way to 238 trips to victory lane across all his various forms of motorsports teams. 

The best year came in 2010 and early 2011. Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 in February of that year. Dario Franchitti won the Indy 500 in May. McMurray won the Brickyard 400 in the summer and they also took a team victory in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona the following January (2011). 

Now, after 20 years in NASCAR, Sunday will mark his final race in the sport. Trackhouse bought Ganassi out this summer and will take over once the checkered flag drops on the 2021 season. The two car team will merge to one car and join Trackhouse next season. 

It puts a bow on 1,347 races in the sport with 15 wins, 161 top five finishes, 389 top 10’s, 18 poles and 6,865 laps led. Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain will try and take them out on a high note and hope to score with them one more win. 

Busch, has already won a race for them this season this past July in Atlanta but was bounced from the playoffs in the opening round. The signing of the 2004 Cup champion resurrected the No. 1 Chevrolet team after years of dismal results. 

It would be a wild set of circumstances for Ganassi to go out Sunday in the end but his former driver in Kyle Larson to score his first career championship in his first season racing for a team other than Ganassi. 

See, Ganassi took a chance on Larson in 2014. Larson didn’t bring much funding but Ganassi likes winners and knew the ability of this young California driver and felt he needed him with his Cup team. 

Larson, started slow. He had 10 top five and 27 top 10’s over the course of his first two seasons in the sport. Then, he finally got over the hump in the summer of 2016 at Michigan. It was the first win of his career in what was his 94th career start. Over his next 124 starts, he’d win six times and look like he was always on the cusp of a breakout. 

Then came that fateful Easter night last year. It cost him his ride with Ganassi in the moment as well as the future. While reshaping his image, Hendrick Motorsports took a chance on Larson for 2021. 

That’s why it would be somewhat ironic that Larson would win his 10th race of the season as well as the championship on Sunday in which would be the final race of Ganassi’s NASCAR career.

Should Championship 4 Get Moved Around Each Year?

One way to improve the show may be to move the championship race around. We’ve talked about this before and the Championship 4 finally moved from Homestead-Miami Speedway to Phoenix Raceway last year. From 2004 through 2019, the championship was always decided in South Florida. It sparked a conversation on if the final race should get moved around each season.

It wasn’t between last year and this and it won’t again last year. Phoenix is starting to settle into the final race of the year. But, should it be?

“I don’t think anybody should be a long-term host,” Chase Elliott said on Thursday. “I think this deal should move around. This is a great racetrack. Yes, it’s a great area. Yes, the weather is good. Yes, it has all the right ingredients to be a good final weekend for us.

“But we should share this weekend with other places around the country.”

The NCAA moves their Final Fours around in basketball. The College Football championship game gets moved each year too. So does the Super Bowl. Should NASCAR adopt a similar model?

“I said this before and I’ll say this again, that it needs to move every year,” said Joey Logano. “I think it should be like the Super Bowl where it’s something that moves around. The cities should bid on it like the Super Bowl does. I don’t see why we can’t do that.”

His Team Penske teammate of Ryan Blaney agrees.

“I’ve always said, I think it should move around each year,” he said. “I think you can give other tracks and areas different opportunities to showcase a championship race. I think it’s good for the tracks. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the you never know what you’re going to get each year. You look at every other sport, that’s what they do. You don’t get the Super Bowl in the same spot every year. They move it around.”

Both Blaney and Logano also agreed that if they do rotate the final race of the season, that they’re also limited in how many places that they can do so at.

“I know we’re kind of limited. That time of year you can’t really have it east or north,” said Blaney. “You’re kind of limited to some of the track that you can go to. I’d like to see it move around.”

NASCAR owns the old ISC tracks. They’re not going to let SMI take over the reigns of the season finale so you can cross off – Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Sonoma, Texas and New Hampshire from ever happening.

Independent tracks like Dover, Nashville, Pocono, Road America, COTA and Indianapolis aren’t viable at at all.

NASCAR’s tracks are – Daytona, Homestead, Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Talladega, Kansas, Darlington, Watkins Glen and Michigan. This is the list you have to work with. Then, you have to break it down by climates.

NASCAR wants to end the season in warmth and preferably not rainy either. Nothing worse than a rain delay or even a rain out for your season finale.

In saying that, Daytona, Talladega, Homestead and Phoenix is all you have left. Martinsville is the final race of the Round of 8, but a November race there is iffy. Richmond is in the same boat. Darlington isn’t giving up the Southern 500 from Labor Day again and they don’t need two playoff races there. Watkins Glen and Michigan is too cold and Kansas is too blah.

So, among the four you have, Daytona and Talladega aren’t good spots to end at under this format.

That leaves Phoenix and Homestead.

“Obviously being late in the year kind of ties our hands to some of the more northern race tracks can’t do that unfortunately but I think it should move around,” said Logano. “That’s something that the fans would like to see. I think bringing the championship race to them. As we keep adding more and more race tracks to the schedule that are bringing the races to the fans, lets bring the championship race to the fans too.”

As far as should they visit the race track from the Championship 4 multiple times a year, neither driver thinks that is an issue one way or the other. Homestead, annually had one stop each season on the calendar, so from 2004 through 2019, the Championship 4 stood out on its own since that was also their first stop to the 1.5-mile track on the season too. But in Phoenix, when they show up in November to compete for a championship, they can rely on past notes from the spring race too.

“I do like racing there (Phoenix). I don’t mind if it’s racing there once or racing there twice for a championship race track at least,” Logano said on that topic. “Homestead we only went to once a year and that went fine. Last year we went to Phoenix twice and that went okay too.”

“I’ll tell you right now, every single team is really focused on Phoenix this weekend just because if you do make it to the Championship 4 then you need a pretty good notebook on going back there,” Blaney said. “I think it’s pretty neat that you go to the championship track earlier in the year because you can kind of focus on it.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps discussed this subject during this annual state of the sport press conference on Friday. 

“I know there’s been a lot of conversation over the years about doing that. I think the move from Miami to here was an important one after 20 years. I think thus far it’s worked out very well.

“The community here has embraced us. I think you see that. The question to me is really more about the competition, right? We’ve been embraced by this community. Would we be embraced by other communities? I suggest we probably would be.

“So what is the best place to host or championship? Would we be open to rotation? Yes, we’d be open to rotation.

“I would say every single option out there we look at. I think you’ve seen that over the last 18 months, that we are going to not be afraid to maximize the opportunity to create the best racing that we can in the best market we can and at the best racetracks that we can.”


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