Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – The much-anticipated NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 takes place Sunday (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway with a relatively new-look but highly-motivated Championship 4 group of drivers.
Only Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin was championship-eligible a year ago and this Sunday he will contend for his first title along with Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano – both former series champions – and Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott, who is trophy eligible for the first time in his five-year NASCAR Cup Series career.
With seven wins this season – including his third Daytona 500 victory – Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team certainly has to be considered a force to be reckoned with. He has two previous wins at Phoenix, the most recent, last year. More than half his starts at Phoenix (30) have resulted in top-10 finishes (17). And Hamlin arrives in Arizona having earned the most Playoff points on the season.
The 39-year old Virginia native – who will co-own a team with NBA legend Michael Jordan next year in addition to his driving duties at Joe Gibbs Racing – has a career-best finish of runner-up in the championship, finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in 2010. He’s advanced to NASCAR’s Championship 4 round three times in his career – 2014, 2019 and 2020.
Logano, a three-race winner this season celebrated one of those wins in Phoenix Raceway’s Victory Lane back in March before the pandemic forced a break in competition.
The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is a two-time Phoenix winner and certainly has been strong in this year’s Playoff run – with an average finish of 8.1 through the nine Playoff races to date – best among the Playoff drivers. A second NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy would make him one of only 11 drivers to earn two titles in a three-year span. He’s been in NASCAR’s Championship 4, four out of the last six-years the elimination-style Playoff format has existed.
Logano, 30, of Connecticut, insists he is the favorite entering the race “and I have a lot of things to back that up,” he said smiling during the pre-race media call this week.
“We’ve had three weeks to think about it, be ready for it,” Logano added “With those things I feel more confident than ever. I always go back to think about my first Championship 4 round back in 2014. I remember crapping my pants about how nervous I was. If I’m being honest, I was very nervous. I had everything on the line for the first time. I didn’t know if I’d ever get back into the Championship 4 again. You didn’t want to blow the opportunity, right? You just wanted to make sure you made the most of it. Now going through it before, knowing how to prepare for what’s coming ahead of you, that battle ahead of you, knowing you succeeded before in the Championship 4 round, it really gives you some confidence to go out there and do your job.”
Keselowski, Logano’s teammate and driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, is making his first Championship 4 appearance since 2017. The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion will be looking for his first career Cup Series win at Phoenix, however, he has two Xfinity Series victories there (in 2014 and 2018).
This season has been one of comparatively quiet success. He’s earned four race wins, 23 top-10 finishes and 12 top-five showings and led nearly a thousand laps (936). His title-eligible position at Phoenix to close out the season is particularly impressive considering the tough way he opened the season, crashing out of the Daytona 500.
In 22 NASCAR Cup Series starts at Phoenix, he has six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. His best work is runner-up in the 2018 Playoff race. He led 82 laps – a personal best at Phoenix – in his 11th-place finish earlier this season.
The newcomer to this championship scenario is 24-year old Chase Elliott, but the second-generation star brings a lot of momentum fresh off a clutch must-win victory at Martinsville Speedway last weekend. His 10 stage wins in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this season is second only to Hamlin’s 11 among the Cup competitors and his four victories is a personal best. His 1,083 laps led in 2020 is most among the Championship 4.
Elliott is looking for his first win at Phoenix, however. He has five top-10 and a pair of top-five showings in nine starts, including a career-best of runner-up in 2017. He’s led 249 laps at the desert one-miler and his driver rating (105.3) is second best among active drivers – best among the Championship 4.
A championship for Elliott would make him and his father Bill Elliott (1988 champion) the third father-son championship pair to win series titles joining Lee and Richard Petty and Ned and Dale Jarrett.
“For me, I’m just taking it a day at a time and just enjoying the moment,” Elliott said. “I’ve been saying that a lot lately, and I think it’s really important to do that. I’ve heard my dad say that over the years that he wished he enjoyed certain moments more and didn’t just run through them. So I’m just trying to enjoy it.
“This is a big opportunity – it’s not an easy thing to make the final four, it’s not something you should ever take for granted, may not ever be here again, so I recognize that and I recognize that we have a very solid team.
“As the No. 9 team in general, I think we are very capable of going and contending this weekend and I believe that and I think we just have to make the most of a great opportunity and enjoy it and try to thrive in the moment and hope for the best.”
Rest assured, Elliott and the rest of the Championship 4 will have their work cut out for them this weekend. Regular-season champion Kevin Harvick, who was stunningly eliminated from the title round last week with an uncharacteristic 17th-place finish at Martinsville, will be highly-motivated as he tries to become the first driver to win 10 races in a season since retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson won 10 in 2007.
Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 series champion who will be missing his first Championship 4 round since 2016, is another who will be racing with a lot of pride on the line.
And of course reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch – who joins Harvick and Truex as the third member of the 2019 title-eligible quartet that failed to advance to the final round this season – will be a huge factor.
Busch has won two of the last four races at Phoenix and Harvick is the all-time winningest driver there with nine victories.
And of course, there is seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson’s final start in the series as a fulltime competitor. He won four times in a five-race span at Phoenix between 2007-2009, including three straight (2007-08). The 83-race winner steps away from the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after 19 fulltime seasons and would love to finish on the ultimate winning high note.
Xfinity heads to the desert to decide the championship
The NASCAR Xfinity Series closes out the 2020 season Saturday with the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 (5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway with four of the year’s most accomplished drivers hoping to become first-time series champions.
Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Justin Haley have combined to earn 20 victories in the 33-races to date. All four drivers are multi-time race winners and all four drivers are eager to host their first ever Xfinity Series championship trophy.
Among the title-eligible foursome, Allgaier is the only driver with a previous Phoenix win, earning victories in both Spring, 2017 and then last year’s Playoff race.
Briscoe, the 25-year old Indiana native, however, has proven himself the class of the field this year with a career-best single season mark of nine victories. He is the only championship-eligible driver with multiple wins in the Playoff – taking a trophy in both previous rounds – at Las Vegas and then at Kansas. He led laps at five of the six Playoff races and his 453 laps out front in that time is tops among the Championship 4 contenders.
Briscoe, who drives the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has only one top-10 finish in three previous Xfinity Series starts at Phoenix, however, with a best showing of sixth in March. He finished fourth in his only NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series start at the Phoenix mile in 2017.
This week’s finale not only represents Briscoe’s first chance to hoist a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship trophy, but it’s his last fulltime start in the series he will make after being given the opportunity to move into the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford in the NASCAR Cup Series next year. Saturday’s race marks an important bridge in the young driver’s career.
“I think, for me, you always want to go out on top anytime you leave any team or any series, you want to leave on top,” Briscoe said. “You want to feel like you didn’t leave anything on the table and I’ve been super fortunate. In ARCA I was able to win the last race of the season and win the championship. In the Truck Series I was able to win the last race that season and that’s always been as I’ve progressed to the next year.
“Hopefully, the third time continues to be that way, but you definitely want to do that. You want to reward those guys. I’ve been with the 98 team for two and a half years now and without those guys there’s no way I would be moving on to the 14, so I want to say thank you to those guys and I want to give them a championship. That’s what they all deserve. They’ve worked so hard, not only this year but the last two and a half years and you want to go out and you definitely have a little bit of added pressure, I think, just in general of wanting to make those guys proud and want to go out on top as a team.”
As has been the case all season, Briscoe fully expects the only other Ford driver in the championship field to be a fierce competitor on Saturday. Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, has five wins in 2020 – also a career-best mark for a single season. His 25 top-10 and 18 top-five finishes are a career-best and he earned the regular season championship.
Cindric, 22, hasn’t won a race since the summer road course event at Daytona Beach, but he has four top-10 finishes in the six-race Playoffs. And his recent efforts at Phoenix are encouraging. He’s finished top-10 in the last four starts at the desert mile with a best finish of fourth in the 2018 Xfinity Series Playoff race there.
“I think you have to approach Phoenix as a must-win situation,” Cindric said earlier this week. “Just because the competitiveness this year has been off the charts. Also, the unpredictability of who was going to be good on what day. I think that has been fun from a competitive side to try to figure out, but also anyone that has watched and enjoyed watching Xfinity races this year.
“I don’t think you can underestimate any of your competitors and you have to bring your best foot forward.”
At 34 years old, Allgaier brings a certain veteran mentality to Saturday’s championship round. He’s won three races this season – all on tracks one-mile or shorter – and scored a Playoff best runner-up finish at the Martinsville half-miler just last week. With the two victories, two runner-up showings and 12 top-10 finishes in 20 previous Phoenix races, Allgaier certainly presents a formidable resume. The driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has led a Playoff best 385 laps at Phoenix, adding to the front-running total in four of the last five races. He finished 13th in March but led 51 laps, most among the four Playoff drivers.
Haley, 21, also of Indiana, has had a stellar Playoff debut season winning at Talladega and earning four top-10 finishes in the opening six races – including two top-10s in the last three events. His 20 top-10s on the year matches his previous best year (2019) and his 10 top-five finishes doubles his previous best mark in the Xfinity Series. He scored his first career Xfinity win in the No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet at Talladega in the Spring, then won again on the Daytona high banks before earning the Talladega sweep with a second victory there last month.
Haley has two top-10 finishes in three Phoenix Xfinity Series starts, with a best showing of fifth this March – which was also the top finish of any of the Championship 4 drivers in that race. He made three Truck Series starts at Phoenix with a career-best seventh back in 2015 as a 16-year old.
And while these four drivers have a championship trophy to race for, they can expect legitimate competition from several other drivers. Brandon Jones won this race in March, finishing just ahead of Harrison Burton, who has won the last two 2020 season races coming into this weekend. And Ross Chastain, like Jones and Burton part of the original 2020 Playoff contingent, will be looking to score his first victory of the year in his final Xfinity Series race before he moves up into the NASCAR Cup Series ranks fulltime in 2020.
Gander Trucks to settle title in cactus country
And so it has come to this, four drivers – Sheldon Creed, Grant Enfinger, Brett Moffitt and Zane Smith – will race for the 2020 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship in Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the one-mile Phoenix Raceway.
Three first-time championship contenders – Creed, Enfinger and Smith; three GMS Racing teammates – Creed, Moffitt and Smith – will race for the season trophy capping a competitive season schedule and particularly thrilling Playoff run.
Regular season champion Austin Hill, a two-race winner, was stunningly eliminated last week after his Toyota suffered a mechanical problem in the Martinsville Speedway race, but four other highly-motivated race winners will decide this season’s trophy hoist.
Creed, a four-race winner in the No. 2 GMS Racing Chevrolet, will be making his Championship 4 debut. The 23-year old Californian has earned four top-10 finishes in the six Playoff races going to Phoenix, including a victory at Texas and runner-up finishes at Las Vegas and Kansas. He has led laps in four of the six races and led the most laps in three of them (Vegas, Kansas, Texas and Martinsville)
Enfinger, also a four-race winner in the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford, is also in the Championship 4 for the first time in his career. He won the regular season championship last year, but did not advance to the trophy race. This year, the 35-year old Alabama native arrives in Phoenix as the most recent winner – surviving a rough-and-tumble final few laps at Martinsville last week for his automatic ticket in. His best showing at Phoenix is fourth-place in 2018. He has a pair of top-five finishes in three starts at the track, but has only led laps there one time (10 laps in 2018).
Moffitt, driver of the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet, finally snapped a season of oh-so close calls with a victory at Kansas three races ago. The 25-year old Iowa native finished runner-up four times but he arrives in Phoenix feeling especially confident. The 2018 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champion is the only one among the Championship 4 who has ever hoisted a trophy at the track before, taking the 2018 victory en route to his title. He easily has the most experience at Phoenix with a pair of Truck Series starts, one Xfinity Series start and two NASCAR Cup Series starts.
His 2020 Playoffs have been up-and-down with three top-10 efforts and three finishes of 20th or worse. He crashed out at Martinsville eight laps before the checkered flag running up front.
One of the most inspired Championship 4 appearances comes from the 21-year old Zane Smith, who crashed out at Talladega in the opening-round finale and literally had to wait until the race finished to see if he had retained enough of a points-cushion to move on. He did. And he’s certainly made the most of his second chance.
This will be Smith’s Phoenix debut in the Truck Series, although he does have an encouraging fifth-place finish in his only start at the track – an Xfinity Series race in 2019. The driver of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet has a pair of top-five finishes in the last races (at Texas and Martinsville) – three top-10s in the Playoffs. He led laps at Kansas (37) and Martinsville (20).
Certainly having the GMS Racing teammates Creed, Moffitt and Smith represent three-quarters of the title run may seem intimidating, but the lone driver from another team, Enfinger, isn’t buying into that.
“I don’t know if there’s an advantage or a disadvantage, but we’re gonna go for broke from the time the green flags drop to the time the checkered flag drops and hope that it works out in our favor,” Enfinger said. “We’re gonna not do anything stupid, definitely not intentionally put anybody in a bad spot, but we’re gonna go for broke. That’s where our mindset is. I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage or a disadvantage going into it like that, but that’s how we feel like we have to play the hand we’re dealt and that’s how we feel like we need to play it.”