5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Season Finale at Phoenix

Qualifying, Pit Stall Selections As A Result

Last year qualifying was the end all be all for winning the 2021 championship. The drivers admitted that after qualifying on Saturday of last year, that being able to score the pole would have a massive advantage in the fact that you get the No. 1 pit stall choice.

It helped Kyle Larson win the title.

“Absolutely not, no, we were terrible halfway through the race,” Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels said on if they were the best car on Sunday. “We were — terrible is a strong word, but compared to our standards this year that I never expected to set the bar that high to ourselves, where we could go dominate and lead laps, we were not where we needed to be.

“I am familiar with what he needs to be comfortable in a car, and unfortunately we did not give him that for most of the race today. We had to make a lot of adjustments. There was a wrench in the window every single pit stop. We knocked in rubbers. We did all sorts of — every spectrum of air pressure that you could try, even one by accident that helped us.

“Even the final pit stop the guys had an amazing stop, was all four tires had different air pressure, it was a track bar change and tape, and they still won the race off pit road, so that was pretty cool.”

It was that pit stall that Daniels and Larson praised on Friday that could help.

Young money got a money stop from his pit crew. It was the second quickest pit stop of the entire 2021 season. He exited pit road first in the final stop of the race and now had clean air and the lead on the restart. With only having 24 laps to the finish, Larson could overcome what they said was the third or fourth best car and help it to victory lane for the 10th time of the year.

“He’s responsible for sitting on the pole, which is stall 1. Stall 1 is responsible for part of the equation that led to the last pit stop,” Daniels continued. “90 percent of the equation was the guys having an amazing stop. 10 percent of the equation was stall 1. And then the last 25 laps I would attribute a lot to him because he knew what he needed to do up front.

“I told him when we were standing on the stage in Victory Lane, I told him, Man, your patience, when you got out front — and no, the car wasn’t perfect, but he knew how to not miss a corner and miss his line and overrun himself to then have a good exit, maintain his pace ahead of Martin. That was pretty crucial.

“Yes, we had some adjustments in the car. Absolutely we had an amazing stop. But I think if it weren’t for his maturity as a driver, not only is he one of the greatest talents in the world currently, but I think he’s now set himself at a level where people can consider him an incredibly smart racer. I think that was the difference at the end.”

Daniels said that the qualifying homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and a little bit Thursday on qualifying.

“But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say,” Daniels said. “We knew on Tuesday that we were going to do top 3 and 4 coming to the green, which we did. We were going to run top 1 and 2 on the money lap, which was lap 1, and then just pray, and 3 and 4, which is exactly what he did, and we got a pole by a tenth and a half.

“So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible.

“Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him.

“It all came down to the final pit stop. And I have always pushed our guys so hard back at the shop, the guys working on the car, the guys pitting the car, and to see them shine in a moment where they could shine I think is just incredible. And then of course Kyle on the restart and really all day long Kyle staying in the game was just incredible.”

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 07: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 07, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Final Restart

This championship could all come down to one final restart. It happened last year. A 24 lap sprint to the finish. Before the late race caution, this championship was Joe Gibbs Racing’s to lose. They had 1-2 with Martin Truex Jr. leading Denny Hamlin. You had a yellow. One final pit stop. Kyle Larson exited 1st and won the race and the title.

It’s almost that 99% of the season and 98% of the race doesn’t matter until the end.

Look at the Xfinity Series race the last 2 years. Hell, Austin Cindric had the championship won last Fall before a late race caution. His advantage was gone and a late race restart allowed Daniel Hemric to beat Cindric in a photo finish.

One pit road speeding penalty. One flat tire. One parts failure that we’ve seen an abundance of this season.

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, tires falling off, 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 – NOVEMBER 07: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, and and Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 07, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Stage Positioning

The other portion to this is how do you best position yourself in the three segments of this race. In the Stage era, all but 1 year did the eventual champion (race winner also) lead the most laps. The only instance that it didn’t happen was in 2017.

However, another odd trend is that the eventual winner never scored a stage win in the opening stage. In fact, they’ve never had a top 2. Furthermore, only Truex leading the first 12 laps of the 2017 Homestead race and Kyle Larson leading the opening lap last year are the only 13 total laps that the eventual winner had even led in Stage 1.

Stage Era Stage 1s:

2017: Truex (5th)

2018: Logano (4th)

2019: KyBusch (3rd)

2020: Elliott (3rd)

2021: Larson (5th)

They better position themselves in Stage 2 in the sense that in 4 of the 5 years they finished either 1st or 2nd in 4 of them including 2 Stage 2 wins in the last 3 years.

For a race that evolves as it transpires, you have to keep up with the track as well as the car. Homestead used to start in the day and end under the lights. Phoenix starts and ends in day time conditions but shadows can play a large role.

It goes to show that you want to be in the top 2 at the second stage break.

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)

Owners Championship

For the first time under this format, the owners championship is different than the drivers. Normally, the same four drivers that make it to the final round represent the same four in the owners hunt. This year, it’s different.

For the second straight year, Kyle Larson won the eighth NASCAR Cup Series playoff race which as a result advanced him to the Championship 4. However, this year’s trip to Phoenix is vastly different than last.

Last year, he was fighting for the drivers title. This year, he’s going for just the owners.

A year ago he scored both, but due to him being eliminated from championship contention following the Round of 12 elimination race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, his personal goal of a repeat title was dashed. But, with how wild of a year this has been on the owners standings side, he’s still alive.

Some may think, what’s the big deal of an owners title? Well, money for starters. This is where bonuses and the big money is to be made. It’s to where each entry finishes in the owners side.

The owners side is the car number where the drivers side is just that, the driver. A prime example is the 23XI Racing conundrum.

Kurt Busch made the postseason via his Kansas win. Without a 16th different winner in the regular season, he and his No. 45 Toyota were playoff eligible. By him taking himself out, it opened up a spot for winless Ryan Blaney.

However, Blaney’s No. 12 Ford wasn’t eligible on the owners side by virtue of them being winless. 23XI Racing wasn’t about to take the 45 out of the owners race.

So, despite Busch being out, the 45 wasn’t. That’s why the swapped Bubba Wallace over to that ride when essentially he was still using everything from his No. 23 side. It was just a number swap.

A veteran in Wallace was better than a Cup novice like Ty Gibbs. Wallace won in Kansas and advanced the 45 onto the Round of 12. That’s where that cars’ championship dreams ended.

Larson’s No. 5 teams’ wasn’t. He marched onto the Round of 8 still. Remember, Blaney’s car isn’t eligible so on points, the 5 team remained alive.

Now, he’s in Phoenix with a championship still in sight and one that can get the 5 team a second straight owners title and in turn grants them large bonuses.

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 enters on the heels of two straight top 5 finishes too.

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.

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