Updated: 5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

AVONDALE, AZ — Now that Friday’s 50-minute NASCAR Cup Series practice session is in the books as well as qualifying to set the field for Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), here are the 5 things I’m watching for the final race of the season.

How Will The Race Look?

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.

So how will Sunday’s race look?

There’s been a lot of chatter in recent years about NASCAR needing to move the final race around some. A revolving sequence of tracks similar to what the NFL does with the Super Bowl or the NCAA does with college football and basketball championship venues.

Should NASCAR adopt a similar model?

From 2004 through 2019, the championship was always decided in South Florida at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2020, it was moved to Phoenix. It’s been here ever since. It will be back in 2023. What about 2024?

“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.”

Ross Chastain purposely crashes his No. 1 Chevrolet in hopes of making up ground in the final lap of the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville

Does Someone Replicate Chastain’s Martinsville Move?

Ross Chastain made the pass, or passes in this case, of the century in last Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at the Martinville (VA) Speedway. On a day that passing proved to be difficult, Chastain took matters into his own hands on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series playoff race.

The 29-year-old, eighth generation watermelon farmer, was in 10th place exiting Turn 2. When told he needed to make up two spots and not cars realistically in site to gain them, he used a maneuver that he saw in an old video game when he was 8 years old.

As the week has now gone on, I feel like the mood in the industry has changed it’s tenor. It went from this is the greatest thing that we’ve ever seen to, we can’t let this happen again. Drivers warned even in the waning moments of Chastain’s move last Sunday that NASCAR should step in and save them for themselves or what’s going to stop someone from copying this move to use in the future.

Kyle Larson said it was embarrassing. Some said it make NASCAR looked amateurish. Others warned that what would stop other drivers from doing this again in the future?

“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,” Chase Briscoe said.

Joey Logano was even more critical of the maneuver.

“As spectacular as it was, as much as it worked, the problem is now the box is open, right?” said Joey Logano “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.

So, with Phoenix having an arching corner to the finish line, what would stop the second or third place cars in the Championship 4 to make a dire move on Sunday to take home the title. What would stop the leader from taking himself out of the racing groove and into the wall to counter?

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)

“That’s why I’m saying we probably need to do something about it before next week,” Logano said last Sunday. “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.”

NASCAR however talked about the move on Tuesday and said that they’re not going to take any action against future use of it and that it was perfectly legal in their eyes.

“As with anything you see for a first time, you’ve got to take a look,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve had a number of discussions internally about that move and what-ifs. That’s within the rules, and believe that is where we’ll be for Phoenix, as well, and then something we can evaluate in the offseason.”

“At this point in looking at it, it was a move within the bounds of the rule book and really don’t think it’s right to adjust the rules when for 35 points races we’ve been one way and throw a wrinkle in it for the 36th (race).”

So, would any of the four drivers make the move on Sunday? They talked about the fact during Thursday’s media day.

“If NASCAR does not put a rule in place or police wall riding, I think that that will open up a huge, huge can of worms,” said Christopher Bell on Thursday afternoon. “I think that all four of us will do whatever it takes to win a championship.

“I hope that they do because I can promise you that it will be used again.”

Would he do so?

“The difference is the dogleg is hundredths of a second. The wall is much, much, much greater than that,” says Bell.

What about Chase Elliott’s thoughts?

 “Yeah, I mean, I think there’s certainly two sides of it, right?” he says. “I think from a global perspective of our sport, it is kind of embarrassing in some ways just from an integrity standpoint of what we do week to week.

“From a standpoint of a guy doing what he needed to do to get the job done, yeah, I think you can have respect for that for sure. But you’re not allowed to cut courses, road courses, and things like that.

“I just think from a global perspective, for the integrity of what we do, it’s not a great look, in my opinion. What do you do?

“You think about this, right? We as a sport, NASCAR has gone through leaps and bounds to make these cars equal, right? Crew chiefs are getting suspended for a month because a piece of tape is in the wrong place.

“All of a sudden a guy runs two seconds faster in the field.

“You tell me, right?

“I get it. For those of you that just walked up, I totally get it. I think there’s admiration for a guy doing what he had to do to get it done, right? I think we can all respect that.

“The aspect that I’m trying to explain to you in another way is certainly relevant.”

Elliott was non-committal on if he’d make the move on Sunday saying that he just hopes that he’s not in a position to have to do so. Logano says that his stance hasn’t changed one iota.

“It was really amazing to see it happen. We saw it work,” he said on Thursday. “What happens when it doesn’t work because there’s a good chance it doesn’t at some point? What if that car went up in the air into the catch fence?

“The other piece too you have to think about is not only the risk for the driver and the fans but the integrity of the sport. Is that what we want? Yes, it was cool, made top 10 plays, as it should. It was awesome. I’m not taking that away from Ross.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, it doesn’t take much talent to do it. It just takes an insane amount of guts to do it because you’re taking a huge risk. Wide open, putting it to the wall, that’s what you did when you were a kid racing a video game and you couldn’t get around Martinsville. That is what you did. He just actually did it in real life, which is amazing.

“I don’t think we want to see all the cars going into the wall the final corner of every race on the last lap. I don’t know if that’s what we want.

“It’s risky. It’s not the X Games. This is NASCAR. It’s a different thing than that.

“I mean, there’s a place for it. Like I said, it was cool, it was a neat move. We all talked about doing it before he actually did it. He had a good reason for doing it. He’s rewarded for being in the championship. That’s fine, all well and good.

“The next time it happens it’s not as cool. The next time, the next time… All of a sudden now a leader has to put himself in the fence to finish first. At that point it doesn’t look really right. In my opinion, it doesn’t look right at that point.”

What about Chastain? Would he do it again with a title on the line?

“I don’t think it’s a move that can have any success at Martinsville,” he notes. “I still don’t know why it worked. Like, I look back at it, I look at the physics of it, I have people explain to me what happened, what I felt, why that car did not slow down, why it kept air in the tires.

“The right front suspension broke, the right front upper control arm is broken, but I was able to get across the line before I could feel it. Down into one, I kept it pinned on the wall because it was broken.

“Why it worked, I don’t know. I have no ideas or plans to ever do that again because it was not pleasant.”

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, Pit Strategy

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.

Trends say, it will happen again on Sunday. 8 of the 9 playoff races so far have had a 24 or fewer lap sprint to the finish. Most included a late race pit call to win.

A caution came out late in the Southern 500. Erik Jones wasn’t leading. The field pit. Kyle Busch went from first to a blown motor handing the lead to Jones. He’d lead the final 20 laps. Two weeks later, another late race caution. This time Chris Buescher held on and won the race off pit road on a 2-tire stop. A week later, a 24 lap sprint to see Tyler Reddick take the lead on the restart and never look back in Texas. The next two races’ final sprint to the finish was just 2 laps. Jones was leading before the final caution in Talladega. Chase Elliott ended up winning. Christopher Bell was 6th on Lap 103 in Charlotte a week later. He pit and restarted 11th. He won. In Vegas, Joey Logano pit for tires late. He had 16 laps to make up ground. He did and won. In Homestead, we saw a late race caution in which Martin Truex Jr. spun on pit road as the leader handing the top spot over to Kyle Larson. He led the final 17 lap sprint to the win. Last week, a yellow came out with 29 to go. Bell was leading. He led 15 of the 17 lead lap cars down pit road. Chase Briscoe was 9th and having to win stayed out. William Byron was a lap down almost the entire way went off strategy and took two tires to come out 4th. Bell went from 1st to 6th but had 4 tires. The move paid off and he won.

What happens this time around? A late race caution and pit call is surely to decide this year’s champion.

“I mean, that’s not my job, right?” Christopher Bell said of that situation. “My job is to focus on producing lap time whenever the green flag drops. I guess rolling down pit road, making sure I don’t speed, getting in my box hard, hit my marks whenever I stop.

“The only thing that I can control or I have the most control over is producing lap time whenever the green flag drops and passing cars if I need to pass cars.

“Pit stops, the adjustments, that’s out of my control. I have all the faith in the world that my pit crew and my crew chief will make the right adjustments and perform well on pit road.”

Chase Elliott agreed saying that this one race format for the championship is truly out of your full control.

“Somebody could dominate a race and not end up winning the race or the championship,” he says. “I think it all has to go your way, right? Yes, you want to have pace. Having pace in your car and being fast gives you a lot of opportunities in different ways. But there are other ways to win, and there are other ways to lose, too.

“I think it all has to go your way — good timing, good people. Not only in the sport, but everything I’ve ever 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.

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.

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