By: Kenny Jimison
Four drivers are heading into Phoenix this weekend to battle it out for the NASCAR championship. Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano all have reason to feel confident heading into the championship race for the Bill France Cup but with the best finisher taking home the championship, staying clean and consistent may be just as important as winning.
Chase Elliott celebrating after winning at Martinsville to secure a spot in the final four. (Image credit: NBC Sports)
Chase Elliott will be making his first appearance in the “Final Four” after failing to do so in his first four seasons and enters as a favorite to win the championship, +240, according to the sports-books. Elliott has the momentum leading into Phoenix after winning his way into the championship race at Martinsville Speedway.
Elliott arguably had the best car in the first race at Phoenix, leading the most laps and had the second highest driver rating. Despite this, he came across the line in seventh.
Chase has yet to win at Phoenix and has an average finish of 13th at Phoenix. Elliott has led a total of 249 laps at Phoenix with 93 of those coming earlier this season. He will be starting on the pole this time, which may give him an upper hand.
2020 has treated Elliott well, awarding him four wins; two on road courses, one at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway, and most recently at the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway. He has also racked up 1,094 laps led.
Elliott gave this statement during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Media Day with advice from his dad, former NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion.
“For me, the big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted. You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings… I think just enjoying these moments, trying to embrace them, especially after a race like Sunday, you wish you could just slow down time and enjoy that moment and make it last a little longer, but you can’t. You just have to enjoy ’em as much as you can, put emphasis on that. I feel like that’s where I’m at right now.”
Denny Hamlin celebrating his Daytona 500 win at the beginning of the 2020 season. (Image credit: Salt Lake Tribune)
Denny Hamlin is making his first charge for a championship since 2014 where he finished 3rd in points. He enters as a tied favorite with Chase Elliott according to sports-books, +240. He enters Phoenix as the sleeper, having a bad run there earlier this season and a rather disappointing run in the Playoffs despite his seven wins this season.
Hamlin scored a win at Phoenix last fall, but NASCAR changed the areo-package this season. He ended up finishing in 20th earlier this season after starting 3rd and failing to lead a lap.
Hamlin has two wins at Phoenix in 30 starts with an average finishing position of 11.27. He has led a total of 821 laps in his career here with 143 coming from his win a year ago. Hamlin will take the green flag on Sunday in fourth place, the last of the four championship contenders.
Denny’s seven wins comes second only to his eight wins 2010. This season, Hamlin has also managed to score 17 top fives and 20 top 10s with 1,083 laps led.
For Denny Hamlin, it has been a long time coming without being able to claim a championship. Hamlin gave this statement at the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Media Day.
“You know, I’m one of those Stanley Cup guys where I don’t like to touch the trophy before you actually win it, so I’ve never actually touched a NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy. I want to be able to touch it.”
Joey Logano took the win at Phoenix earlier this season. Can he repeat this and win the championship? (Image credit: USA Today)
Joey Logano enters Phoenix looking for championship number two. He won his first championship in 2018 and failed to defend the championship in 2019, being knocked out in the “Round of 8”. Logano is ranked third to win with the sports-books, being +260, despite having won Phoenix earlier this season.
Logano led 60 laps in his March win at Phoenix and it was his second win in the first four races. He has an average finish of 14.35 but boasts two wins since the fall 2016 race at Phoenix. He has also led 449 laps in his 23 starts at the track. Logano will be starting in second for the championship race this weekend.
Joey’s 2020 performance is the most lackluster of the “Championship 4” but he still carries three wins, 11 top fives, 20 top 10s, and 814 laps led.
Logano gave this statement of confidence about the final race at the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Media Day.
“I think the experience is there, the speed is there… The mentality of the way we race is there. I truly believe that we’re the favorites to win this thing. Like I said, that’s important to me to feel that way. I feel like I have real things to back that up, which is good.”
Brad Keselowski after dominating at Richmond Raceway earlier in the Playoffs. (Image credit: Los Angeles Times)
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR champion, is on the hunt for championship number two and this might be his chance. While Keselowski may be entering Phoenix ranked last by the sports-books, +300, he is likely to show a lot of speed this weekend.
Keselowski has shown power at flat tracks, winning at both New Hampshire and Richmond earlier in the season. The team will be bringing the same car that won both races to Phoenix, a fact that may be overlooked by some. The car has speed and Keselowski has proven it can win on similar track, possibly giving him an upper hand.
Brad has yet to score a win at Phoenix in 22 races and has an average finish of 13.5 with a personal best of second in fall 2018. He did manage to lead 82 laps in the race earlier this season but has the lowest number of laps led here by the “Championship 4” with 248. He will be starting in third, behind Chase Elliott and teammate Joey Logano.
Keselowski just edges out his teammate Logano in stats in 2020, bringing home four wins, 12 top fives and 23 top 10s with 936 laps led.
Keselowski said he wants to win this championship for his team, not just himself at the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Media Day.
“You know, the way the playoff format is designed, it’s meant to not give any free passes, even though there are teams that have performed really well for the majority of the season. With that said, our team is motivated. They’re hungry.”
Chase Elliott on track at Martinsville Speedway. (Image credit: NASCAR)
So, What Does this All Mean?
I would put my money on Chase Elliott to be crowned as champion. While each driver offers their strengths, Elliott is going into the race with momentum coming fresh off his win at Martinsville. While the two courses are not exactly similar in structure, both are short courses and offer a similar driving style.
Elliott is also starting on the pole and even though the NASCAR “Championship 4” are all starting on the first two rows, this is just a slight hand up for Elliott off the start. He also had a very strong showing at the spring race and had everything it took to win that race; they just did not get the job done. Even though Logano brought home the win in the spring, I think Elliott is in a better position to get it done this weekend, provided his car is just as good as it was in spring.
If you are a fan of theories, here is a fun one to consider as well, that would crown Elliott as champion. In 1988, the L.A. Dodgers won the World Cup and the L.A. Lakers won NBA Finals. Bill Elliott (Chase Elliott’s father) won the Winston Cup Series and V.P. George H.W. Bush won the presidency. Does that sound familiar? In 2020, the L.A. Dodgers are champions. So are the Lakers. A past V.P. also won the presidency this year and who has the chance to win a NASCAR championship? Chase Elliott.