NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Season Finale at Phoenix

Should The Season End Sooner Than November?

The final race of the year has shifted up over the last few years to the first week of November. Now, it’s being questioned on if we should keep inching it sooner and sooner? I get the notion that fans want the season to last longer and longer, but how wise is that decision?

I wrote earlier this Fall about how INDYCAR is doing right by ending when they do and should honestly end Labor Day weekend. Ther’s no sense to go head-to-head against the NFL in their case and even NASCAR for that matter.

When TV money is judged off of ratings, you absolutely take a hit the later you go into the Fall. Chase Elliott actually brought it up back in September at Bristol saying that he feels the NASCAR season should end sooner and he too feels like going against the NFL is a bad idea.

He’s not wrong.

The NFL is always going to be the headliner on Sunday’s. It just is. On Saturday’s you’re competing against College Football. The sooner you end, the better the chances the ratings don’t fall off as much and the better the ratings equals a higher average of ratings for that portion of the TV contract which in turn means more money in the next deal.

In saying that, the TV networks do value NASCAR in the Fall though. While they’re not expecting 4-5 million weekly viewers, getting half of that isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. For those TV execs at NBC Sports, ESPN/ABC and other avenues, they know that they need some kind of programming on Sunday’s to go against the NFL. CBS and FOX have the 1 and 4 pm ET windows. Why would NBC or ESPN/ABC punt on any sort of coverage from 1-7 p.m. ET every Sunday in September, October and November?

Nothing against these sports, but cornhole or any other ESPN The Ocho sport isn’t going to get people to turn to that station. Infomercials aren’t going to do it for NBC.

So why not NASCAR? They have a strong fan base that you can get 2 million folks to tune into a Fall afternoon race and they can sell advertisement for that station. That’s the value. But, is it good for NASCAR?

The drawback on their side is how many casual or new fans are you going to lure to your sport in the Fall? This is your most important races. This is a playoff run. A Championship is to be decided on Sunday. How many new fans are going to watch when the NFL will have games on the same day?

In order to grow a sport, you need new fans. The fans watching now are already going to watch. But wouldn’t it be better to have 5 million tune in than 2 million? That 3 million gap could affect the other races the following year because if you capture a new fan, they’ll tune into the non playoff races and follow through for the postseason. That’s why this is all relevant.

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)

Should Championship 4 Swap Out Each Year?

This past spring, Phoenix Raceway announced some good news. They’ve once again sold out Championship Weekend. Another part of the news was the fact that Phoenix and NASCAR came to an agreement to have the 1-mile Arizona oval host the season finales for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Cup Series’ too. That brought out a question in the sense should Phoenix host the championship now every year?

From 2004 through 2019, the championship was always decided in South Florida at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2020, it was moved to Phoenix. At that time, most thought that this would spark a revolving door of championship venues.

The NCAA moves their Final Fours around in basketball. The College Football championship game gets moved each year too. So does the Super Bowl. Should NASCAR adopt a similar model?

“The only thing I would change is I would move the final race from track to track, year to year,” Joey Logano said. “I know that’s probably not possible with a lot of deals in place and all.

“I think of the Super Bowl, the impact it has when it comes to a new city, how it kind of makes maybe the stadium better but also that city. I think they should bid it out, the highest bidder, we should go to that track.

“I’m sure there’s a lot more business behind that that I have no idea how it works. I wouldn’t be against switching it up and trying different tracks all the time, giving fans maybe local that can’t come to a race a chance to see it.”

His Team Penske teammate of Ryan Blaney agreed.

“I’ve always said, I think it should move around each year,” he said. “I think you can give other tracks and areas different opportunities to showcase a championship race. I think it’s good for the tracks. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the you never know what you’re going to get each year. You look at every other sport, that’s what they do. You don’t get the Super Bowl in the same spot every year. They move it around.”

Phoenix will now have hosted the finale race in 4 straight years. They’re starting to settle into the final race of the year. But, should it be?

“I don’t think anybody should be a long-term host,” Chase Elliott said on Thursday of championship weekend last November. “I think this deal should move around. This is a great racetrack. Yes, it’s a great area. Yes, the weather is good. Yes, it has all the right ingredients to be a good final weekend for us.

“But we should share this weekend with other places around the country.”

Both Blaney and Logano also agreed that if they do rotate the final race of the season, that they’re also limited in how many places that they can do so at.

“I know we’re kind of limited. That time of year you can’t really have it east or north,” said Blaney. “You’re kind of limited to some of the track that you can go to. I’d like to see it move around.”

NASCAR owns the old ISC tracks. They’re not going to let SMI take over the reigns of the season finale so you can cross off – Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, COTA, Sonoma, Dover, Nashville, Texas and New Hampshire from ever happening.

Independent tracks like Pocono, Road America and Indianapolis aren’t viable at at all.

NASCAR’s tracks are – Daytona, Homestead, Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Talladega, Kansas, Darlington, Watkins Glen and Michigan. This is the list you have to work with. Then, you have to break it down by climates.

NASCAR wants to end the season in warmth and preferably not rainy either. Nothing worse than a rain delay or even a rain out for your season finale.

In saying that, Daytona, Talladega, Homestead and Phoenix is all you have left. Martinsville is the final race of the Round of 8, but a November race there is iffy. Richmond is in the same boat. Darlington isn’t giving up the Southern 500 from Labor Day again and they don’t need two playoff races there. Watkins Glen and Michigan is too cold and Kansas is too blah.

So, among the four you have, Daytona and Talladega aren’t good spots to end at under this format.

That leaves Phoenix and Homestead.

“Obviously being late in the year kind of ties our hands to some of the more northern race tracks can’t do that unfortunately but I think it should move around,” said Logano. “That’s something that the fans would like to see. I think bringing the championship race to them. As we keep adding more and more race tracks to the schedule that are bringing the races to the fans, lets bring the championship race to the fans too.”

As far as should they visit the race track from the Championship 4 multiple times a year, neither driver thinks that is an issue one way or the other. Homestead, annually had one stop each season on the calendar, so from 2004 through 2019, the Championship 4 stood out on its own since that was also their first stop to the 1.5-mile track on the season too. But in Phoenix, when they show up in November to compete for a championship, they can rely on past notes from the spring race too.

“I do like racing there (Phoenix). I don’t mind if it’s racing there once or racing there twice for a championship race track at least,” Logano said on that topic. “Homestead we only went to once a year and that went fine. Last year we went to Phoenix twice and that went okay too.”

“I’ll tell you right now, every single team is really focused on Phoenix this weekend just because if you do make it to the Championship 4 then you need a pretty good notebook on going back there,” Blaney said. “I think it’s pretty neat that you go to the championship track earlier in the year because you can kind of focus on it.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps discussed this subject during this annual state of the sport press conference last year.

“I know there’s been a lot of conversation over the years about doing that. I think the move from Miami to here was an important one after 20 years. I think thus far it’s worked out very well.

“The community here has embraced us. I think you see that. The question to me is really more about the competition, right? We’ve been embraced by this community. Would we be embraced by other communities? I suggest we probably would be.

“So what is the best place to host or championship? Would we be open to rotation? Yes, we’d be open to rotation.

“I would say every single option out there we look at. I think you’ve seen that over the last 18 months, that we are going to not be afraid to maximize the opportunity to create the best racing that we can in the best market we can and at the best racetracks that we can.”

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 07: A general view of racing during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 07, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Should Championship 4 Appearances Carry More Weight Than Championships?

Winning a championship in any sport has almost always been the true measuring stick of greatness. I mean, when we discuss the Mount Rushmore of any league, the first criteria is always, how many championships has he or she won?

Well, NASCAR is the same. But, to what degree is greatness defined now? Championships have always been it, with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles always being the measuring stick of what separates the best from the greatest.

Now, we’re in a different era though. Since 2014, NASCAR’s champion wasn’t crowed based off points. Yes, the first 35 races run during a season saw points being the reason the Championship 4 was formed, but it wasn’t the end all be all in determining a champion anymore.

Whoever finished ahead of the other three Championship 4 drivers in the season finale won the title. It had nothing to do with the first 35 races. It had nothing to do with stage points for that race. It had everything to do with crossing the finish line ahead of the other three participants.

I mean you had Kevin Harvick winning 9 times during the 2020 season. He failed to make the Championship 4. So it’s not like it’s an easily attainable round even if you had a great regular season and start to the playoffs.

“Winning a championship today isn’t how Earnhardt or Petty did it,” said Harvick to me before the playoffs even started last year. “I think it’s a much different style of winning a championship than what it used to be.

“When you look at the point standings from this year, you see why the playoffs were put into effect in trying to make sure that we had an intriguing 10 weeks of racing as we went toward the end of the year.

“It’s very difficult to get yourself to the last race of the season and be one of those four cars and trying to be able to race for let alone win a championship.

“It’s very difficult to put yourself in that position and once you get there be able to put everything together against the other three guys on one particular day, especially when it’s been at the same race track (Homestead-Miami Speedway) every season that we’ve gone about it this way.”CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – MAY 17: #11: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Express and Christopher Gabehart during the All-Star at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2019 in Charlotte Motor Speedway, United States of America. (Photo by Nigel Kinrade / NKP / LAT Images)

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief in Chris Gabehart agreed.

“It’s like Harvick said, it’s a very different world in how we crown our champions today, full of a lot of exciting racing, no doubt about it,” Gabehart said. “You got to tune into the very last lap of the NASCAR season to know how it’s all going to play out.

“The reality is we have to go out and run another race.  It’s really that simple.  It just is that the championship is at the end of this one.”

The playoffs in NASCAR, like they are in stick and ball sports, are nothing like the regular season anymore.

Yes, a race win gets you to the next round, and yes points can still get you by, but like the other sports, you damn near have to be perfect to win this championship.

Since 2004, the year that the playoff format was first added to NASCAR, only three drivers have won a championship more than once — Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch. That’s it. That’s the list.

Also, since this new format was adopted in 2014 though, Busch is the only driver to win the Cup more than once. In fact, in this new era of NASCAR racing, one could say that just getting to a Championship 4 should be as big of a stat like winning a championship.

You should be judged on that and have a similar weight for your merits for a Final Four as you would a championship. I mean, I get it a championship should hold the most weight, but look at the NCAA Tournament, it’s all about a Final Four. We talk about that a lot. How many Final Fours have you been to?

Same for NASCAR. I mean the elite teams in the NCAA have been to Final Fours. Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Connecticut, you name it, normally it’s the elite of the elite’s.

Especially more so now than ever before, winning in NASCAR is just so difficult. You have to be damn near perfect in the playoffs to even get a chance of getting to the Championship 4. That means being flawless on pit lane (no bad stops, no penalties), being aggressive on track, having a good starting spot, etc.

Harvick, was +42 entering the final race of the third round in 2020 and didn’t make it to the final round despite 69 playoff points. Even he had to be perfect.

Same for basketball. In the NCAA tournament, it’s grown to be you can beat anybody on any given night. You have to be flawless. You can’t turn the ball over, miss free throws, lapses on defense, etc. Those that do, they have short lives in the Big Dance.

NASCAR gives you three shots per round, but one bad race can easily slip up your title chances very quickly. With racing being measured in a matter of tenths of a second now, you don’t have the luxury of many mulligans. Most found out the hard way. While there will be upsets along the way, the big names like in the NCAA Tournament will still find their ways to the Final Round. The ones that do will do so on perfection.

How many drivers have we seen have a season to where they were outside of the top 10 of the overall points standings but they march deep into the playoffs? The consistency may not have been there but they won enough races at the right time to keep going.

I mean, all you have to do in the 26 race regular season is find victory lane at least once. If you can do that and stay in the top 30 of the points standings, you’re marching to the playoffs. Then, if you win at least one race in each of the first three rounds, you get to the Championship 4.

But, from the Round of 8 on, it’s where drivers say winning a title gets tense.

“It’s stressful, man,” said 2015 and 2019 series champion Kyle Busch. “It’s not stressful until the round of 8 and the round of 8 is the ultimate pressure.

“Once you get to the final round though I feel like it reduces. It’s just about being in the Championship 4 and being eligible there and you know you’re racing against eight of the best of that time right then and there.

“So with this format being the way that it is, it definitely takes time off you probably a little bit, it’s pretty stressful, gives you some more gray hairs than you want — or the loss of hair there for that.”

I mean, look at how stressful it is to make the Championship 4, but the guys that do so are there for a reason. They think just making the Championship 4 should hold almost as much weight now as winning a championship.

The problem becoming of this format is, as Hamlin puts it, you get your Game 7 moment like to what happened to Harvick in 2020, but forget about the first eight innings at that.

His teammate Martin Truex Jr. agrees. While he won a title under this format (2017), he feels like winning a championship now has never been more difficult under this Championship 4 format.

“I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship),” Truex said on the topic. “I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.

“I think if you look at the elimination races and the stress, the amount of decisions that are made, the amount of laps that are raced, how many things in racing can happen to you. If you get to this level and have this much success, you don’t really believe in luck any more, you know?  You can’t because if you do, then you’re relying on luck to get you where you want to go.  It’s probably not going to work out consistently.

“So I think it’s very, very difficult to get here.  I think the argument could be that final four appearances are very important.  They’re looked at in some way that is more than, Well, the guy didn’t win the championship.”

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 07: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 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)

Is It Fair To Judge An Entire Season Based Off Of 1 Race?

With 35 races run one way, and one another, is it fair to base an entire season off that 1 outlier?

“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 Denny Hamlin last year regarding this topic between he and Kyle Larson. “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 then and he would later take home the championship still.

“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.”

Combined heading into the season finale last year, they won 67% (6-for-9) of the playoff races, won 56% of the stages (10-for-18) and led 55% 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 had eight finishes inside the top four in the 18 stages run with Larson scoring 11.

They’ve dominated the postseason. Now, they had company in a winner take all format at Phoenix. Was that fair.

Same goes for this year too. In a wildly unpredictable season, 4 drivers have a shot at a title this Sunday. It’s not about points. It’s not about anything that these 4 did prior to this weekend. It’s just a race to cross the finish line first.

You race one way for 35 races and another in the end. It’s all about just finishing ahead of the other three drivers in the Championship 4. Should you do so, you win the title.

Is that a fair way to judge a full season for a single driver? Do you look at them and say that despite having a great first 35 races, you didn’t beat so and so to win the title?

Kevin Harvick won nine times in 2020 but didn’t take home the crown. Was that a bad season for him? What if Larson despite 9 wins prior to Phoenix last year didn’t take home championship?

This 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?

Will Some Try to Copy Ross Chastain’s Move?

Ross Chastain used a move that he learned playing video games and made a highlight reel move that will be remembered for decades to come on the final lap of last Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. It’s one that will be used in promo videos for years to come.

However, if some drivers have a say about it, this will be the first and last time we see a maneuver made like that. I get both sides of the coin here though. On the surface, it was exhilarating. It was ballsy. It was as good as they come.

Chastain was 10th on the final lap. Denny Hamlin was 5th. Chastain needed 2 more spots but the two spots were well ahead. So, he did the move he did in a video game and oddly enough, it worked.

Chastain shot out of a cannon and looked like he was on fast forward speed compared to everyone else and went from 10th to 5th to beat Hamlin by 4 points and in his first season with Trackhouse, is going to the Championship 4.

That lap he turned was a track record at that. He went 18.845-seconds which beat Joey Logano’s pole record from 2014 (18.898-seconds).

“Oh, played a lot of NASCAR 2005 on the game cube with Chad (his brother) growing up. You can get away with it. I never knew if it would actually work,” Chastain admitted after the race.

“I mean, I did that when I was eight years old. I grabbed fifth gear, asked off of two on the last lap if we needed it, and we did. I couldn’t tell who was leading. I made the choice, grabbed fifth gear down the back. Full committed. Basically let go of the wheel, hoping I didn’t catch the turn four access gate or something crazy. But I was willing to do it.”

It was a move praised by some.

“Great move. Brilliant,” said Hamlin. “Certainly a great move. When you have no other choice, it certainly is easy to do that. But well executed.”

Chase Briscoe agreed.

“Yeah, I probably needed less laps, that would have been nice,” Briscoe said. “If I would have known that move Ross did, I move done that (laughter).

“He was behind me. Probably 10 car lengths behind me. My spotter told me I think he was needing a point. I saw him coming, I was like, oh, my gosh, he’s cleaning me out here, coming wide open. I saw him go to the wall. I was pretty amazed. I was just cringing when he got to the gate off of four.

“I think all of us have done it on some video games, whatnot. He executed it well. Curious to see what kind worm hole that opens up at the end of these races going forward.”

That’s exactly why this move will be discussed. Who’s to say it won’t happen again and become a last lap norm? There’s a reason we’ve never seen this happen before and to why it looked as crazy as it did. It truly did look like a video game. Is that what we want NASCAR’s premiere series to truly look like?

Kyle Larson doesn’t think so calling it embarrassing. Joey Logano sided with Larson on this topic.

“We all did it as kids,” said Logano. “We all did it in the video game. That’s how you made speed in the video game, that’s what you did (smiling).

“Something we all thought about at one point. At least I thought about it a lot, but never really had the need to do it. Also kind of thought of how many races I could have won here by doing that.

“As spectacular as it was, as much as it worked, the problem is now the box is open, right? Now every Xfinity race, every Truck race, every Cup race, no matter the track, this wall riding is going to be a play. That’s not good. That’s not good.

“I mean, it was awesome, it was cool. It happened for the first time. There’s no rule against it. There needs to be a rule against this one because I don’t know if you want the whole field riding the wall coming to the checkered flag.

“I don’t know if it’s the safest thing for the driver or the fans when you have a car right up at the wall hauling the mail like that. What if that fence, gate, wasn’t closed all the way? What if it was bent and caught his car? That’s a big risk that Ross was willing to take. God bless him, that’s awesome.

“I don’t think we need to do that every week.”

His teammate Ryan Blaney noted that he saw the move and said why not do that every week?

“I just saw it and I guess I wish I should have done it.  I guess we’ll all start doing it now coming down to the end of the race,” he says.

Could it happen next week for a championship?

“That’s why I’m saying we probably need to do something about it before next week,” Logano said. “Like I said, the box is open now. It’s going to continue to happen until we do something about it.

“Yeah, I mean, Phoenix presents the opportunity for it, too. A little different entry point and all that. But, yeah, when you’re going for a championship, you’re probably going to do it.

“You’re leading going into the last corner, you’re going to put it in the wall? Geez. It’s cool, it happened once, we don’t need to make this a thing.

“We can’t make it a thing. I mean, hey, the first time it happens, that’s pretty awesome. I mean, if that don’t make SportsCenter’s top 10 plays, I don’t know what does. Race into a championship, that’s crazy.

“I haven’t really talked to Ross. I don’t know how he feels about it. You think about getting bounced off the wall like that, your head is bouncing around like crazy. You touch the fence, there’s no suspension between the car and the fence. You know what I mean? It’s really rough if you start riding the wall like that.

“Like I said, we need to do something about it. It was awesome. If we did it every week, it wouldn’t be very professional at all. But since this is the first time, hey, more power to him.

Logano warns that it’s not just about the championship, you could literally do this move at any track.

“It can happen anywhere. We’ve seen it happen at Darlington. It has nothing to do with the composite body. The body actually looks pretty good on the thing after doing that. The car doesn’t look that bad (smiling).

“You never need it to run another lap once you commit to do that. You can do that with a steel body, too, because you’re never going to do it again so… Yeah, body had nothing to do with it.”

As far as what stance NASCAR can take to regulate this?

“I mean, I think it’s pretty easy: you can’t hit the wall and gain a position. I think that’s a pretty simple way of looking at it. It’s kind of a dumbed-down version. If you hit the wall, you gain a spot, you should be at the tail end of the field,” he said.

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