5 non playoff things to watch for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix

Kevin Harvick’s 10th Phoenix Victory?

The proverbial “king of the desert” has been astounding in Phoenix. Since 2012, Harvick has seven wins alone to go along with 11 top two finishes (21 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than seventh just three in those 21 starts too. He was 6th in the spring race but restarted third in the end. He just didn’t have the launch to contend for the win and got eaten alive.

He was 2nd and 1st respectively at Richmond and finished 5th at Loudon 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 WinnersNo. of TracksTracks With 10 or More Wins
Richard Petty5Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11) Daytona (10)
Darrell Waltrip3Bristol (12), Martinsville (11), North Wilkesboro (10)
Jimmie Johnson1Dover (11)
David Pearson1Darlington (10)
Dale Earnhardt1Talladega (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 21 starts, to go along with finishing worse than sixth just three times since 2012, he’s not won since the track was reconfigured. He’s 0-for-7.

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 2020 and beyond. Harvick, was eliminated in the Round of 8 in 2 of the last 3 years and in the opening round this one.

7 of his last 8 Phoenix results have seen him finish fifth or worse. 10 of his previous 13 on the old configuration saw him finish fourth or better.

LONG POND, PENNSYLVANIA – JUNE 27: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Mini’s Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pocono Green 225 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons at Pocono Raceway on June 27, 2021 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

End Of An Era For Kyle Busch/Toyota

2020 was the final race of Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports here at Phoenix. 2021 was Brad Keselowski’s final run with Team Penske. 2022 is Kyle Busch and Toyota’s turn. 56 of Busch’s 60 career NASCAR Cup Series victories came with Toyota. He won their first race, their first championship and has had some stellar moment with the manufacturer as well as Joe Gibbs Racing.

Sunday it all comes to an end and will likely be emotional for all parties.

Can Busch go out a winner?

“Rowdy” enters Phoenix with 12 top seven finishes including nine of them being in the top four in his last 14 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, 25th, 7th and 7th since though too. At Richmond, Busch finished 9th and 25th while also being 12th at Loudon.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 13: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem – Capitol Container Toyota, races during the the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Short Track Package

There’s no doubt about it, the short track package this season has arguably been the worst discipline for this new car. With the final 2 races of the season being with it, will Phoenix be improved?

Bristol had the least amount of lead changes in well over a decade. Richmond has largely been a bust this year. They had 13 and 16 lead changes. That the worst since the 2019 package which was dubbed a mistake and changes were made. Same for Martinsville was terrible back in the spring. The 5 lead changes that night were the same as we saw for 2019 too. The pair of 2019 races (3 lead changes each) and this past spring (5) were the worst there since 1997. There were 18 and 15 respectively just one year ago. Last week we saw 6 cautions and 8 lead changes.

What about Phoenix?

There were 14 lead changes in the spring race. There were 22 and 18 respectively last year. The 14 in the spring were the least amount since….2019.

“Had good track position from our qualifying effort but passing was just impossible,” Hamlin said at Bristol. “It was just a type of day where you needed to stay up front at all costs and we just couldn’t quite do it and ended up having a blown tire that set us back and we were trying to play catch up from that point. (The Next Gen car) was tough. I would like to see the racing improve overall. Some lap time variation a little bit. We’re just running around there and it’s like we’re running faster in the corners than we are on the straightaways. Just extremely hard to pass. Just seems like mechanical stuff with this Next Gen and wrecks are the X-factor in moving on so you just have to be really consistent and with five races to go, that’s when you have to start winning.”

With big changes made between 2019 and 2020, you can be sure that NASCAR doesn’t want a flop of a season finale after the type of season that we’ve just seen.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Non Championship 4 Winner?

The preview for this race used to be simple. One of the four drivers that’s left in the NASCAR Cup Series championship was more than likely going to win the season finale.

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 third 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 8-for-8 in this format but 2-for-42 prior.

  • Championship 4 drivers likely all will finish in the top 4. They’ve done so in 2 of the last 4 years. They’ve finished 1-2-3 in 3 of the last 4 years at that.
    • 2021: 1-2-3-5 (2nd year at Phoenix)
    • 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)

However, if any year that a Championship 4 driver wasn’t going to win the Championship 4 race, it would be this one.

19 different winners overall, the entire first round swept by non-playoff drivers.

“These things are equal, and if you hit it right, you’re fast,” Ross Chastain said earlier in this year’s playoffs “We saw both RFK cars (were) just better than everybody tonight. Either one of them could have won. I don’t think they do that last year.”

Kyle Larson agreed. The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion said this is all a byproduct of everyone having the same parts on their cars. There’s no innovation anymore.

Another factor is that in the past, the teams that had already won a race would save their best equipment for the end to when it mattered the most. Why waste it on regular season races that don’t matter as much to them.

“When we used to build our own cars and design our own cars, we would just save the best stuff for the end of the season,” Denny Hamlin said. “Everyone would front-load a lot of their best people, best parts, best bodies, best cars for the playoffs. There’s no secret the ones who kept advancing, the cars just got faster. They started pushing tech a little bit more. It wasn’t a coincidence the final four is always 1-2-3-4 (in the race).”

That’s partially why when we got to the playoffs, the playoff cars looked like they resided in a different zip code. Plus in past seasons, the playoff drivers were in the playoffs for a reason. This year, there’s not much difference between the playoff drivers and the non playoff drivers. The gap was dwindled.

I mean you have some good drivers not in this year’s championship that can win on Sunday now.

Since 2012, Kevin Harvick has seven wins alone here to go along with 11 top two finishes (21 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than seventh just three in those 21 starts too. He was 6th in the spring race but restarted third in the end. He just didn’t have the launch to contend for the win and got eaten alive.

He was 2nd and 1st respectively at Richmond and finished 5th at Loudon too.

Denny Hamlin

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has 10 Top-10 finishes in his last 13 starts in the desert including five Top-5 finishes in his last seven Phoenix starts in general. At Richmond, he was first and fourth respectively while finishing sixth also at Loudon.

Ryan Blaney

One of the top Penske drivers at this track. Blaney, has 6top 10’s in his last 7 at Phoenix including a pair of third place runs in 2019, 10th and sixth in 2020 and 10th (35 laps led) and fourth last year and 4th again this past spring. He led 143 laps and won Stage 2 but pit road on his final stop kept him from victory lane. He was 7th and 10th at Richmond this year and only 18th at Loudon though.

Martin Truex Jr.

He finally won at Phoenix in the 2021 spring race. 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, 10th and second respectively in his last three November starts to go along with his March 2021 win. On like tracks, he finished fourth and seventh at Richmond and fourth at Loudon.

Brad Keselowski

He was second and 10th in his last two Fall race starts there and fourth in the spring of 2021. Roush used to be really good at Phoenix. Can Keselowski put them back on top? He’s coming off of a pair of top 5 finishes on the season.

William Byron

He has a quiet three top 10’s in his last five starts in Phoenix. At Richmond, he was 3rd and 11th while being 11th at Loudon.

Chris Buescher

He won Bristol, was 3rd last time out in Richmond and had a top 10 here in the spring.

Aric Almirola 

Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola has been stout in Phoenix. The Florida native has finished in the top 10 in six of his last nine starts including being 8th, 11th and 12th in his last three March starts as well as being sixth last Fall.

However, if it’s the same old Championship 4 up front again, is it time to spice this thing up?

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.

This year there’s not been that separation which is why if there is on Sunday, something has to be done.

“Oh, yeah, no question,” Truex Jr said last year on if Sunday’s season finale was 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.”

Denny 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?

The last two years it wasn’t.

Last year the Championship 4 drivers finished 1-3-4-5 in Stage 1 and 1-2-3-4 in Stage 2.

Out of the first 134 laps, non Championship 4 drivers led 34 of them. In the middle of the race a pit sequence allowed Tyler Reddick to lead 4 laps and Kurt Busch 1. That was it.

Championship 4 drivers led 273 of the 312 laps (88%).

It 2020, it only took 48 laps for the Championship 4 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 that race, 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 for years, 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.”

“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 class of 2020 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 that year, they still were 1-2-3-4 in both stages and the only ones to put up any fight for the lead all day.

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.

How Much Do You Look Ahead To Next Year Now?

Another factor to the point above is how much are teams looking ahead to next year? If you’re not fighting for a championship and already know that this is the Championship round in 2023, how much do you use this race as a 312 lap test session to get you further ahead for next year?

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