NASCAR Pre-Race Media: Who wins this year’s championship? Who I think and who trends say

AVONDALE, AZ — The time is here to crown a champion. Practice is done. Qualifying are in the books. It’s time to race. Four drivers enter Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale at the Phoenix Raceway and only one goes home the champion. The question is, whom?

It’s shaping up to be a desert shootout between four drivers in what’s being dubbed “a hell of a show” ahead.

All four are confident. All feel like this weekend is the great equalizer as there’s really no separation between the four. If this was on a 550 track, sure Larson would be the heavy favorites. But this isn’t. This is a 750 and Joe Gibbs Racing has been stout on them this season.

The thing is, in saying that, everyone also feels now like HMS are the favorites with the most speed in their cars this weekend. They dominated practice as well as qualifying.

Does JGR have anything for them?

We also know that in order to win this year’s title, you’re going to have to win the race itself too. During all 7 years of this format, a Championship 4 driver has won the race.

Also, the Championship 4 drivers will likely all finish in the top 4 too. They’ve done so in 2 of the last 3 years including them going 1-2 in six of the seven at that.

    • 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.


Race Day Schedule

11 am: Garage Opens

2:45 pm: Driver Intros

3:19 pm: Invocation

3:20 pm: National Anthem

3:27 pm: Command

3:34 pm: Green Flag


Race Details

Coverage: 3 p.m. ET

Green Flag: 3:34 p.m. ET

TV: NBC

Radio: MRN

Computer: NASCAR.com

Phone: NASCAR App

Race Distance: 312 Laps/312 Miles

Stage Lengths: 75-115-122

Competition Caution: Lap 25

Race Official: Lap 156

Playoffs: Championship 4

Track: Phoenix Raceway


Starting Lineup


You’ll have to be perfect throughout the race too and get your car dialed in for a late race push. The odds of a restart towards the end are low with having seen just 1 overtime finish in the last 8 races run in the Arizona desert. We went green for the final 112 laps in this race last year without a yellow in the final stage. In the spring race this year, the final 25 laps went green.

So, the potential of someone stealing a win away in the end isn’t likely to happen which means you need to be flawless on and off pit road as well as not incurring much damage to your car throughout the race.

In saying all of that, who’s the best then among the four vying for the title? The one with the most speed should win which is fair in its own right. So, who is it?

Hendrick Motorsports has looked the best in general this season, but if you break it down to 750 tracks like the one at Phoenix this weekend, it appears that maybe Joe Gibbs Racing is ahead of the competition. HMS looked good last week in Martinsville but are they truly better than Team Penske now and did they close the gap that much to JGR?

For HMS, Kyle Larson was seventh in Phoenix (1 lap led) this past spring, fifth (0 laps led) and 14th (78 laps led) 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).

Chase Elliott was fifth (Phoenix), second and 16th (Martinsville), 12th and 4th (Richmond), third (Dover), 18th (Loudon) and 25th (Bristol) on the same tracks.

William Byron was eighth (Phoenix), fourth and fifth (Martinsville), seventh and 19th (Richmond), fourth (Dover), 21st (Loudon) and third (Bristol) respectively while Bowman actually won three times (Richmond, Dover and Martinsville) but was 13th (Phoenix), 34th (Martinsville) and ninth (Loudon), 12th (Richmond) and fifth (Bristol) in the others.

Dover was their obvious best at 1-2-3-4 but they’ve not been as dominant on other short tracks either. Where this could be the most worrisome is Loudon has typically been an early preview of the Fall Phoenix race too.

Since New Hampshire went down from two races each year to one annually, this race has ended up being a Championship 4 preview. Last year especially since Loudon can translate over to Phoenix. In fact, with Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix all being in the playoffs, that’s 30% of the postseason being on like tracks to Loudon. That’s why this race was arguably so important.

Plus, the tire used in New Hampshire will be used this weekend at Phoenix. There’s a lot that can transfer over.

JGR on the flip side is arguably the best organization on 750 tracks this year. They’ve won three of the eight short track races.

Denny Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix (33 laps led), third and 24th in Martinsville (276 and 103 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.

Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing in Loudon too. But, 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 as well as fourth at Martinsville last week.

Busch was eighth and ninth in Richmond, 10th and at Martinsville, 25th in Phoenix this past spring, 27th at Dover, 37th in Loudon and 21st in Bristol.

Christopher Bell has been quietly good with being seventh and 17th in Martinsville, fourth and third in Richmond, ninth at Phoenix and runner-up in Loudon.

This was the eighth time in as many years JGR has produced a car in the Championship 4.

For Penske, they’ve not been at their best on 550 tracks but are on the 750 package outside of last weekend.

They looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps (143) earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. 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.

Keselowski, was fourth at Phoenix (19 laps led) this past spring and runner-up last year. He’s been behind the HMS and JGR cars though on 750 tracks I feel this year. Same for Ryan Blaney who was 10th in Phoenix (35 laps led), 11th (0 laps led) in both races 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).

They put 2 drivers in the Championship 4 last year but won’t this time around due to HMS’ Round of 8 strength.

The thing is, despite leading 376 of 501 laps last weekend in Martinsville, can HMS beat JGR on Sunday.

Phoenix back in March saw 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.

For Martinsville in the spring, Penske led 163 of 500 (33%) of laps, 157 of which by Blaney but 6-11-33. Blaney did sweep both stages though. JGR actually led 61% (305 of 500) of the laps between Hamlin, Truex and Christopher Bell and went 1-3-7 in the race and 2-3 in both stages behind Blaney. Hendrick may have went 2-4-5 but they had nine total laps led, all by William Byron. Again, Penske and JGR combined to lead 468 of 500 laps (94%) that day.

For Richmond 1, Alex Bowman won, but this day was dominated by JGR and Penske too. JGR led 315 of 400 laps (79%) with Penske taking 19% (74 of 400) of the laps led themselves. They placed 4 cars in the top 5 between them and went 1-2-3 in each stage. That’s 389 of 400 (97%) of laps led that day too. In Richmond 2, JGR led 326 of 400 (82%) laps that night, finished 1-2-3 and swept both stages including being 1-2-3 in the second stage. Penske didn’t lead any laps that race but for 800 laps of action this year there, JGR and Penske led 715 laps (89%) and went 1-2-3 in 3 of the 4 stages too.

In Loudon, SHR won and honestly dominated but HMS led 53 laps, Penske 117 of 293 (40%) and JGR just seven. Still, that’s 124 of 293 (42%) of laps led between Penske and JGR to go with stage sweeps by Penske with being 1-2 in Stage 1 and 1-3 in Stage 2.

Finally four Bristol on concrete, HMS got the win by Larson who led 175 laps that night and 129 more laps led by Elliott. Penske led 55 of 500 laps (11%), with JGR 70 of 500 (14%). That equates out to 125 of 500 laps (25%) in general.

It’s not a fluke I don’t think that on the two concrete tracks, HMS did their best with JGR and Penske tops at the others.

I’d say the top drivers in this order on 750 tracks, mainly short tracks this season are, Truex Jr., Hamlin, Logano, Blaney, Larson, Elliott, Bell, Byron, Bowman, Busch and Keselowski.

But, can anyone top Hamlin and Larson. Is this their race and championship to lose?

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. Truex won the spring race here and has three wins on short tracks this season.

My pick: While I do feel like HMS has the advantage right now, I’m sticking by my pick with Hamlin. He’s been too good on these track this year and just dialed in to not take it.

Trends Pick?

Repeat champ – not likely. Jimmie Johnson was the last to do so between 2006 and 2010. Prior to that, Jeff Gordon was the last in 1997 and 1998. Those are the only two instances in the last 25 years entering this weekend. That doesn’t bode well for Elliott.

Phoenix sweep – The driver to win the spring race at Phoenix has only went on to win the series championship jus three times. Terry Labonte (1984), Dale Earnhardt (1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995). That doesn’t bode well for Truex Jr. What does bode well for him is in 5 of the 7 years of this format the season champion won 5 times. Truex, has 4 wins in 2021 and is the only one who can win for a 5th time on Sunday.

Best driver all season? – Just twice did the #1 seed win the championship. It did happen in 2017 and 2019 so….2021? The thing is, just 2 of the 7 years under this format did the driver who won the most races during the regular season end up winning the title.

Parity – We’ve had this format for 7 years and in it, we’ve seen 6 different champions. Kyle Busch is the only repeat winner. Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott each have won a title during this span leaving Larson and Hamlin left to keep this going.

Trends can make a case for every driver minus Elliott so we can eliminate him. Then, pick your driver from the other three. The key is, Hamlin fits every criteria and is also the top trends pick too.

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