Championship 4 weekend has provided thrilling moments heading into Sunday’s Cup Series finale at Phoenix

AVONDALE, AZ — If the first two races of the weekend here at the Phoenix Raceway is any indication, then Sunday’s capacity crowd for the Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) is going to be in for a treat.

Zane Smith took home the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title on Friday night. He did so in a two-lap overtime shootout. Smith, held off defending series champion, Ben Rhodes, by .236 seconds at the end of a wild final two laps of Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150, Smith put it succinctly after a celebratory burnout at Phoenix Raceway. 

“The third time’s the charm,” exulted an emotional Smith, who said he was crying throughout the final lap after wresting the lead from Rhodes one circuit earlier. 

For the final restart, Smith chose to line up behind Rhodes, rather than to his outside. That enabled Smith to shortcut the backstretch dogleg and pull even with Rhodes to the inside. From that position he was able to edge ahead of eventual third-place finisher Chandler Smith to the outside. 

“I’m going to win this,” Zane Smith said of his mind-set in overtime. “There was no other option. I was either backing it in the fence wrecking, or I was leaving tonight with a championship trophy. There were no other options, and when I saw the 18 (Chandler Smith) get underneath me I was worried that I got him too loose underneath me.   

“Fortunately, he stayed off of me. I have a lot of respect for all three of (the other title competitors). It’s pretty impressive for some of the racing we’ve seen lately for us three to go at it that hard and that clean.” 

Smith started on the pole, swept both stages and won the race in the end.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 05: Justin Allgaier, driver of the #7 BRANDT Chevrolet, Ty Gibbs, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, and Noah Gragson, driver of the #9 Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/BRCC Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 05, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

On Saturday, it was a similar story. The pole sitter swept both stages and won in the end. However, it also looked the same in a sense of some hard fought battles throughout the 200 laps of action.

Gibbs started on the pole and led a race-high 125 of 200 laps en route to his second straight win on the season, his 11th of his career and as a result, his first career championship.

“First off, I just want to say thank you to my team,” a joyous Gibbs said in front of a raucous chorus of boos. “Every one of these guys, my pit crew, they did an awesome job. They put us here. Great job to my team.

“You know, what I did last week was unacceptable, and I apologize once again, but it was unacceptable because we could have had two shots to win this deal, and it was stupid from an organization standpoint. All my fault.

“I can sit here and tell you I’m sorry as much as I can, but it’s not going to fix it. I’ve got to fix my actions. I felt like today I had a good race, felt like I made some good moves. Me and the 7 were racing really hard. I felt like hopefully we put on a great show for you guys, the fans, and thank you for all that you guys do.”

With all the breathtaking side-by-side racing, lap after lap, the difference came down to performance on pit road. When the Championship 4 drivers pitted under the seventh caution on Lap 160, an 18.8-second stop dropped Gragson from third to eighth for a restart on Lap 165.

Gibbs’ crew, in contrast, had its best stop of the day—13.7 seconds—and grabbed the lead from Allgaier off pit road. 

After a subsequent caution for Brandon Jones’ spin off the bumper of Gragson’s No. 8 Chevrolet on Lap 165, Gragson gained five spots on a Lap 171 restart, soon passed Allgaier for second and launched a ferocious pursuit of the eventual race winner.

Gragson closed within two car lengths through Turns 3 and 4 with two laps left but couldn’t get to Gibbs bumper. He crossed the finish line .397 seconds behind Gibbs.

“I gave it my best,” Gragson said. “I drove my ass off and gave it everything I had. Just got beat…

“He (Gibbs) raced like a champion tonight. He deserved it.”

Now, we’re set up for what should be a thrilling NASCAR Cup Series 2022 finale. Does it bode well for Joey Logano to score his second career championship?

“Oddly enough, the best car or truck has won both races,” Justin Allgaier said. “Zane (Smith) won both stages, won the race. Ty (Gibbs) won both stages, won the race. Both got the pole. I don’t know if that’s any omen for tomorrow, but if it is, you might want to go put some money on Joey (Logano) for the Cup race.

“But what’s funny about that is is that when people look back at the box score at the end of the race, they’re going to see who won, who got the pole, would won the stages, and it’s going to be like oh, man, these two dominated these races, but it wasn’t that way. It was wheel to wheel, battling it out.

“I think that’s why, when you start out in Daytona, we want to get here. We want to get to this Final 4.

“Very rarely does it happen the way you envision it. Like I didn’t envision last week being the last one in coming to the checkered. Literally we took the white and I was out; and we took the checkered and I was in.

“You don’t envision it that way, but we still rose to the top. And all four of us battled. And like Noah said, we all gave it everything we had, and then some.

“And when you walk away from here — Noah said he’s going to sleep good tonight. I’m going to sleep good tonight because nothing else I can do.”

So what does Sunday hold? By both accounts of what we’ve seen so far, plus late race restarts in the last two Cup races here, I expect a barn burner that could be won by Logano in the end.

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