Guide to watching Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) at Phoenix

AVONDALE, AZ— 35 races are in the books. Nine playoff races down, one to go. Four drivers enter Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale with one goal in mind – championship. But, are each playing with house money?

See, this is a different era. The champion on Sunday isn’t going to be won on points. For 35 races of a NASCAR Cup Series season, points matter and most times all the way to the last lap with a single point being the difference. For the four championship eligible drivers in Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), stage points don’t matter at all now. All the bank of points were withdrawn leaving Martinsville last Sunday. It’s whomever crosses the finish first among them.

Is it fair that your season is now defined off one race?

The drivers competing for the title don’t necessarily think so. They think that the season is made by making it to the Championship 4. Everything else is an added bonus.

Martin Truex Jr. is happy to be back for a record tying fifth time and says the pressure is higher in the previous round than now.

“I mean, it’s just eight guys. It’s the eight best guys of the year trying to whittle it down to four,” he said. “You know it’s going to be tight, close, every spot is going to matter. Unless you’re Kyle Larson, you won 30 races this year, it’s going to be close. 29, sorry (laughter). I mean, you know it’s going to be close. You come down to Martinsville, you know it’s going to be a nail-biter, which it was.

“Next week it’s an honor and pleasure to get to race for championships. Only four of us get to do it. It’s a fun week. It’s definitely a lot less pressure than trying to go eight to four.”

Truex also feels like a favorite despite not being looked upon as one.

“As good as my car was that day, I was hoping — I told somebody last week before the race, or a few people, I think in my media stuff, that we really all summer were looking forward to Martinsville and Phoenix,” he said of his chances.

“All summer we were like, we’ve just got to get there. We’ve just got to get there. We made it, so here we are. We’ll see what we can do with it. I feel good.

“I mean, we’re here, so I feel really, really good. We’ll see. That was a long time ago car-wise and team-wise. The roles and what we have now, I don’t know where we stack up against the Hendrick cars, honestly. They’ve been really, really strong.

“We’ll see, but our car was crazy. Just the way it felt in the spring was amazing, and I’m hoping we can get that feel with even more speed this weekend.

“Phoenix has been a good track; 750 tracks have been kind of what we’ve been our best at this year, not only JGR but the 19 especially. All four of our wins have come with this package and these rules.

“We definitely had the best car, no question. We had to pit for some damage at the end of Stage 1 and drove all the way through the field to second Stage 2 and took the lead in Stage 3 and never looked back.

“Then we had a little bit of issue on a restart and fell back to fifth or something and drove our way back to the front again. I definitely felt like we had the best car, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

“That was the best car I’ve ever had here in my whole career. I’ve been coming here since 2004. The car felt really good. It did a lot of really good things. If we can make that happen again and hopefully have even more speed, we’re going to be tough to handle.

“We need to make sure we hit it right. And obviously that was a while ago. Things have changed, rules, tech procedures, et cetera. Things will be a little bit different. Certainly the weather is going to be different. It’s going to be hotter out here than it was then, as well.

“No PJ1, just spraying resin I think today, and then not again all week. The track is going to be different, and you’ve got to go out there and practice and do what you always do.

“That is use your best guess intuition and your feel and your gut, engineering and all those things that go into it and put it all together and hopefully mash it all together and come out with a winning car on Sunday.

“I enjoy the 750 stuff, so I’m fired up and excited about this weekend. I think we can get it done.”

Chase Elliott is also happy to be back and ready to defend his title from a year ago saying that he’s more confident now since he’s been in this very same position and performed as a novice in it last year.

“Yeah, I think it’s just more kind of going through the motions last year and just learning I think more about ourselves through that experience than it is anything else,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have any experience with it last year and we were able to put our heads down and get the job done.

“I felt like we learned a lot about ourselves last year and really what we were capable of and how we could focus on the right things and go and ultimately get the job done, and I feel like our group has exemplified that that weekend and since.

“I think having gone through that experience once, we can hone in on the things that matter most and make our car go as fast as possible and execute a good race.

“I think just making sure you’re focusing on the right things is really the most important piece of the weekend, and I feel like our group is very capable of doing that.

“Hopefully we’re even more prepared now and we can go and do it again.”

But, that puts the pressure all on Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin who’ve dominated this season. Neither though are feeling it.

“Absolutely. To me it’s fuel,” Hamlin said. “Like, I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation there.

“I mean, I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville, starting in the back, going back to the back again, driving all the way to the front. Winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?

“I feel like that momentum was taken away, taken from us.

“Again, the momentum then in my head swings back around into now I’m ultra-motivated. I love the feeling of, like, just proving people wrong.

“You would rather be booed than ignored. The moment you get ignored, it’s bad news, you’re on your way out.”

Larson says, So far I don’t feel any extra pressure. I think that could change once we show up to the racetrack, you see all the cameras on you, all that. We have practice. I think if you’re not fast, then you can feel the pressure. If you’re fast, maybe you feel more pressure.

“As of right now, I don’t feel any different. Like I said, I think it could change later in the week.

“I haven’t treated it any differently than any other race,” said Larson on Thursday. “It hasn’t so far felt any different. I haven’t had any butterflies this week, which has been good. I didn’t know how I would feel leading into this week’s events.

“I think I’m just really excited for the opportunity. Hopefully we can take advantage of the opportunity and win my first championship. This is something you always dream about, being in this position to win a championship. I’m just very happy, thankful, lucky to be sitting where I am right now talking to you guys, speaking about a championship.”

Last year, Kevin Harvick won nine times in 2020. He wasn’t in the final round. Would he take three wins and a final round defeat or nine wins and no Championship 4? That’s a question Denny Hamlin was asked this week a year ago and he said then that he would take the nine wins.

Brad Keselowski said last year that bonuses are to be made by Championship 4 appearances. Joey Logano wants championship trophies, but does acknowledge that the final race is run differently than anything else all season.

“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.”

That’s why this race will be different. Here are five things to watch.

Chase Elliott celebrates after winning the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series title in Phoenix

Championship To Be Won

This is the first thing for obvious reasons. All the attention is on Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.. One of them will win the title on Sunday evening from the Arizona desert. That’s going to garner the most attention from this point forward.

All four are confident but is this title Larson and Hamlin’s to lose?

“I mean, you guys might consider me the favorite, but I don’t think any of us are a favorite. I think we’re all pretty equal,” Larson said.

“I don’t view myself as being a favorite. I don’t view any of us being a favorite.”

All of them agreed. Literally. No one feels like there’s any separate between these four despite Larson having nine wins and Hamlin having arguably the best car on short tracks.

Elliott and Truex though won the last two Phoenix races respectively and are just as confident as the ones most say that they’re chasing.

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 56% 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 with Truex Jr. winning here back in the spring as well as taking home three victories on short tracks this season.

You Have To Be Perfect On Sunday

The champion on Sunday is going to be the one who has no mistakes made during the course of the 312 Lap race. No speeding penalties. No loose wheels. No loose lug nuts. No crash damage. No flat tires. Nothing. You have to be absolutely perfect this weekend and can’t afford to be playing from behind.

See, Homestead in the past was a place to where you could make up ground if any of those things occurred early enough. You have 1.5-miles of track to pass on as things get spread out. Phoenix, well it’s not. It’s a 1/2 mile shorter without a lot of real estate to make up a lot of ground on.

You only have 312 Miles from start to finish. Homestead was 88 miles longer on a bigger, wider track.

Plus, this race so long as cautions don’t fall in the middle of a pit sequence, will be pretty straight forward according to the crew chiefs. Homestead was too with as any caution would fly, tires would go on. Phoenix you may be able to do a strategy play, but if cautions don’t fall right, it’s not going to work.

So, being perfect is how this title is going to be won among four very evenly matched drivers.

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)

Championship Could Come Down To Final Restart

The crew chiefs all agree that pit strategy may not be much of a factor this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. They all felt that if the cautions didn’t fly in bad situations, then they should be pretty straight forward races this weekend.

See, they also felt like they had 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 felt 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.

But, two of the three races here last year came down to pit calls. They very much decided the final outcome of the Truck Series and Xfinity Series’ races in 2020.

Brett Moffitt had the championship won in the Truck Series last November. 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.

A day later, 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 the Friday night before. 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.

Now, what happens in the Cup race on Sunday? Will we be 3-for-3 for overtime finishes this weekend? Last year, they were 2-for-3 with the best car winning and it playing out in favor. The Cup race last year went green for the final 112 laps without a yellow in the final stage. In the spring race this year, the final 25 laps went green. We’ve only seen 1 overtime finish in the last 8 races. We’ll see if this ends up being a factor.

You know not all four cars on Sunday can pit under the final caution if it does indeed happen because some have to go off strategy and put themselves in a position to win.

Championship 4 Drivers Likely To All Finish In The Top 5

Championship 4 drivers likely all will finish in the top 5 on Sunday. In fact, there’s a strong case they’ll go 1-2-3-4. They’ve done so in 2 of the last 3 years.

    • 2020: 1-2-3-4 (1st year at Phoenix)
    • 2019: 1-2-4-10 (last year at Homestead)
    • 2018: 1-2-3-4 (Homestead)
    • 2017: 1-2-4-7 (Homestead)
    • 2016: 1-4-6-34 (Homestead)
    • 2015: 1-2-6-12 (Homestead)
    • 2014: 1-2-7-16 (Homestead)
    • The champion only won the final race once in the previous 10 years of the playoff format (2011 Tony Stewart). In fact, if you go back to the start of the Modern Era (1972) and go through the 2003 season on the traditional points format, the season champion won the season finale just two times in 42 years. Jeff Gordon (1998 in Atlanta) and Tony Stewart (2011 in Homestead). They’re 7-for-7 since

Best Of The Rest

Some may wonder, what’s the point of the other 36 drivers racing on Sunday. If this is all about the championship, isn’t that confusing? Well, they’re all finishing out their years too with motivation as well. There’s the race to finish fifth as the top driver not in the Championship 4. Currently, Brad Keselowski leads Kevin Harvick by five points for this distinction. Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano are each 15 points out as you can rest assured that Team Penske would like to go 5-6-7 in the end.

Then you have a race to get in the top 20 of the final standings. Why’s this important you may ask? It sounds a lot better to be in the top 20 than not. Ross Chastian is ahead of Bubba Wallace by eight points for that.

Also, stage points count for these drivers too. Where they don’t for the Championship 4, everyone else is points racing.

So, while you have a fight for the title, how hard do these drivers race them?

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