For just the second time since the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season, there’s four different NASCAR Cup Series teams battling for the championship in the season finale. The last three years we’ve had at least a pair of teammates vying for it and even in a rare case, three cars from one organization. This year, we have four separate teams.
Also, unlike in years past, we don’t have a clear cut favorite to win. The win percentage among the Championship 4 is the third lowest ever (37.1%). Last year’s was 48.6% with 2020 being 51.4%. 2018 and 2019 were each over 60% ranges with 62.9% between the four in 2018 and 60% even in 2019. So you can see how far this year’s has fallen.
The 2,719 laps led between the four are the lowest amount ever. By comparison, last year’s was 5,627. The year prior was 3,927 with 2019 being 4,562 and 2018 being 5,230.
As a result, you can an even playing field among the Championship 4 in an even playing field season.
“Well, you know, every year you start, you want to race for the championship, and we’ve had a great year,” said Rick Hendrick who has Chase Elliott going for the drivers title and Kyle Larson in the owners championship race. “We’ve won 11 races.
“It’s that time of year when you go to Phoenix and see what you can do. Thankfully we’ve got two opportunities, one to win the drivers’ championship and the other the owners’.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought battle. There are four really good teams and four great drivers. Anything can happen when you go out there in a one-race deal.
“We’re excited to have the opportunity. It’s always tough to get there, and if you’ve got a car that’s able to compete there, you’re very fortunate.
“We’re excited about the weekend.”
Justin Marks, co-owner of Trackhouse Racing, says that he never expected to be in this position, this soon let alone, as their main goal entering this year was to just get one car into the playoffs. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect to get both and to then get one to the final round.
“I think that one of the things that we talk about in the building here is just that we want a chance,” Marks said. “All we want is a chance. All we want is an opportunity. I came into this race season with a personal goal. This wasn’t a goal that was socialized publicly or even within the walls of our company, but it was just inside me, is I just wanted to put one car in the playoffs. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to put one car in the playoffs.
“And now for us to be kind of at this point, you know, a sentiment is like, well, you’re sort of playing with house money because we’re sort of beyond all of our expectations right now. But that doesn’t for a second mean that these guys right down here in the shop aren’t working on that car harder than they’ve worked on a car all year because we’ve got an opportunity to go to Phoenix Raceway and win a NASCAR Cup championship.
“I think you’re right in the sense that sort of no matter what happens down there, this has been an incredibly successful debut season for Trackhouse. I call it our debut season because it’s our first year on our own truly. I think everybody in the building is blown away by seeing every weekend on the racetrack the opportunity that we have in this sport, and to be in this conversation, like I really wanted to do this press conference, just so everybody listening right now — last week I was nervous about Martinsville because I just so badly at this point now wanted to go to Phoenix with Trackhouse being a part of the story. I really wanted that.
“Now we have that, which is amazing.
“I said it at lunch today. I said, Now it’s easy. Now we’ve just got to try to go win a race. We’ve just got to beat three guys.
“But to your specific question, no matter what happens, it’s going to be — we’re going to look back as an absolutely barnstorming, incredible debut season for this company, and we’re just going to try to win it.”
Walt Czarnecki of Penske feels like this new car has helped aid in a closer gap between the big teams and the rest and why it’s anyone’s game on Sunday as a result.
“I think it’s been a step in that direction,” he says. “You reminded me of something that happened in 2018, by the way, when you talked about the three veteran teams and then Trackhouse. I recall Joey being at a press conference at Miami when he said it was the big three and me. I had forgotten that.
“Maybe it’s the big three and Trackhouse, but I don’t discount anybody right now.
“But I do think the car has been a major factor in the competition this year, and again, as I just said to Claire, 19 different winners. It’s really boiled down to, and we’re going to have to do this on Sunday, boils down to preparation, execution, strategy, and a driver who wants to win.
“The cars are relatively even. I’ve got to be careful what I say here because nothing is ever even. I realize that. But it’s the closest I’ve ever seen.
“I looked at the qualifying times at Martinsville last Sunday. What are they, from 1st to 36th it was two-tenths, three tenths of a second? It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I think that’s a testament to what NASCAR has done.”
“The car has made it super competitive on any given day, anybody can win,” he says. “You’ve seen all these different winners this year. Nobody has really just dominated the sport. The parity is really unreal.
“I think NASCAR got what they wanted. We’re all trying to figure it out a little bit better each and every week. But boy, you just look at the lead changes and how many people are up there running up front, and you always expect to see coach up there and Roger, and Trackhouse has done an unbelievable job.
“And you look at other teams like Petty and I think Brad and his team, they’re going to be contenders next year.
“So I think it’s leveled the playing field, and it’s good for the sport. I think the fans love it.
“I sometimes look back and like the old way, but it’s good for the sport.
“I think Sunday could be — just like always, a pit stop, somebody hits the air pressures right, cautions fall at the right time, you just have to run it and see how it ends up.
“But there are four really, really good drivers in that race. You know, it’s just going to be hard to pick a winner in there. Of course I hope our guys are the ones that win it.
“But it’s going to be a good show. It’s going to be a hard-fought show.
“I look at Trackhouse and any other competitor that comes into the sport. I think the 23 crowd has shown a lot of muscle. They’re going to be competitors and fierce competitors next year.
“I think you’ve got to race everybody now. I’m going to pull for a Chevrolet team if it’s not us for sure, because we’re stronger together.
“But Justin has done a great job. He’s got two great drivers. You can’t take anything away from that.
“But I look at them like Brad is going to be tough next year, having Reddick over in that Toyota is going to be tough. Hey, you’ve got to race everybody, so it’s going to be a bunch of good cars out there, and we just have to go race and win our share.
“But they have done a super job, and I commend them on that. We can’t really look at other people. We just have to get better ourselves. We have to do a better job of figuring out the car and crew chiefs and drivers working together and the whole organization working together.
“We’ve won 11 races this year, and you always want to win more, but I’m thankful to win 11.
“I see other competitors coming, and you can’t rest on your laurels. We’re going to have to be better.
“I think we are better. I think we are getting better every race. Some races don’t show it, but in some areas I think we’ve improved, and then in other areas we need to improve a lot more.
“I look at everybody as competition.”
Czarnecki doesn’t think that with a second year of this car in 2023, that the gap will necessarily widen just because the bigger teams have more money to develop it faster.
“I think we’ll see the lesser teams still have the same chance,” he says. “I really do. They’re being given that opportunity. Again, I think the car has indicated that or has illustrated that.
“It really boils down to the people. There are some darned good people, whether it’s Penske or Hendrick or Gibbs, there are a lot of good, talented, smart people in this sport that know how to race and know how to win.
“I think it could be just as open next year as it was this year.”
Speaking of people then, with cars being so even, does Penske and HMS each having a past champion in this round help separate them from JGR and Trackhouse who have first year drivers here.
“Well, again, you make a good point,” said Czarnecki. “They’ve been there before. They know how to win. They know how to close the deal. They know how to deal in certain circumstances and get the best possible results.
“Having said that, I think one of the unique things about this season has been the fact that as we approach this last race, this championship weekend, I don’t see any clear-cut favorite. I think any one of these four drivers can win the race. I think we’ve seen that all season long. I don’t have to give you the stats, but again, just 19 different winners, could be 20 different winners when we leave Phoenix on Sunday afternoon.
“I guess from a psychological standpoint, experiential standpoint, yeah, Joey and Chase probably have a little bit of an edge, but for one moment I don’t count out C-Bell, the tremendous job he did just to get in, and Ross Chastain, the tremendous job that he did to get in.
“Again, I also want to congratulate Rick and Coach Gibbs for their great organizations, getting them in the show. But Justin Marks, what a great story that is. I mean, brand new, come here, win races, get into the Championship 4. Congratulations to those guys.
“Again, whatever advantage Joey or Chase may have when the race starts, they’ll take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves, but I’m not sure with the cars being as equal as they are — in fact, it may take that for them to win. We’ll see.”
Gibbs says that they way he sees it, Bell has a 1-in-4 chance on Sunday of hoisting the championship trophy.
“I think he’s got one out of four chances to win that (laughing). I think that’s probably what everybody is going to say,” Gibbs noted.
“It is extremely tough. When you get to this and you think about who’s sitting there, who he’s going to have to race against, those three other competitors from great organizations, I think it’s going to be extremely hard.
“I think the way our playoffs are designed, it does bring a lot of excitement to it, every three races, dropping out four cars. Now we’re down to just four.
“I think our fans love this format and the way it’s designed. It brings a lot of pressure into the situation, and I think we love — everybody loves to — one of the things we love with sports and one of the things we love about pro sports, it’s so hard. It’s the greatest reality show in the world. We don’t know. We’re going to go to Phoenix, and there’s going to be four great organizations, drivers competing with their crew chiefs and their teams and their pit crews.
“I think it’s going to be just a great weekend for us.”