AVONDALE, AZ — The time is here to crown a season champion on Sunday in the west valley of Phoenix. For the third straight season, the Phoenix Raceway will be the site to determine NASCAR’s champions. With practice and qualifying now in the books, who takes home Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series title, who wins Sunday’s Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) and how will the 312-lap race look?
First off, I don’t necessarily think that this year’s champion has to win the race outright.
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 eight 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.
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.
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. He starts 2nd.
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. He’ll roll off third.
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.
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. He starts 8th.
He won Bristol, was 3rd last time out in Richmond and had a top 10 here in the spring.
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.
So you have that in the way this time around. The other portion to this is how do you best position yourself in the three separate 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 either. 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.
“Somebody could dominate a race and not end up winning the race or the championship,” said Chase Elliott. “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.”
In saying that, what you see for the first 275 laps or so, could all be for not because of a late race caution can alter the entire complexity of this event.
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 also happened in this year’s spring race with a three lap sprint to the finish back in March.
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 potential scenario. “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.”
Which goes back ironically enough to qualifying on Saturday. That’s because pit selection is so big here and getting the No. 1 pit stall has a massive advantage. The pit selection process is determined by qualifying results.
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.”
- 22 Logano – On the pole, has the best pit stall, has looked good and said the right stuff all week. Why not?
- 5 Larson – He’s after an owners title, remember? Larson won this race last season and has 6 top 7 finishes in his last 7 tries here.
- 9 Elliott – Starts 5th and has 4 top 5’s in his last 5 here.
- 1 Chastain – A good long run car should help him get to the front, it’s just that the other 2 are already there…
- 20 Bell – Wouldn’t be a Championship 4 without all 4 in the top 5…
• Starting position matters in Phoenix. 9 of the last 10 Phoenix winners have come from a top 10 starting spot. In fact, 13 of the last 16 have started in the first 5 Rows including 7 of the last 8 from the top 6 at that. • We’ve only seen 1 overtime finish in the last o The final green flag run was just 3 laps this past spring. o In the spring race of 2021, the final 25 laps went green while the final 24 laps in the playoff race went green to checkered. o We went green for the final 112 laps in the 2020 playoff race without a yellow in the final stage. o For 2019, the spring race went 74 laps from green to checkered over the final run but only three in the playoff event. o In 2018, it was 114 laps (spring) and 12 laps (Fall) over the final green flag run to the distance. • The driver to win the spring race in Phoenix has only went on to win the series championship just three times – Terry Labonte (1984), Dale Earnhardt (1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995). That may not bode well for Chase Briscoe.