Analyzing Cup Championship 4 contenders
Will it be a first-time Cup champion or a repeat winner? The continuation of a legacy? Or the end of countless heartbreak?
Sunday’s Cup Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC), lacks a heavy favorite with Kevin Harvick not advancing.
The storylines, though are just as fascinating.
Chase Elliott seeks to follow his Hall of Fame father’s footsteps and win his first championship. Denny Hamlin, the oldest Championship 4 contender this year at age 39, also seeks his first crown. For the first time, Team Penske has placed more than one car in the title race. Former champs Brad Keselowski (2012) and Joey Logano (2018) each seek their second title and join an exclusive group of multi-time series champions.
“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,” Elliott said of conversations with 1988 champion Bill Elliott. “You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”
For the first time in the seven years of the playoff format, the Championship 4 race will not include Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. All three have been in the title race each of the past three seasons (2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019).
“I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times,” Logano said of his fourth title race appearance. “That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”
Here is how the Cup Championship 4 contenders compare:
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Crew chief: Alan Gustafson
Wins: 4 in 2020 (10 in career)
Daytona Road Course
Charlotte Road Course (playoffs)
Martinsville II (playoffs)
Speeding Penalties in 2020: 3 (Darlington I, New Hampshire, Talladega II)
Championship notes: Making his first Championship 4 appearance. He could become the third youngest Cup champion if he wins the title. Only Bill Rexford (age 23 in 1950) and Jeff Gordon (age 24 in 1995) would have won titles at a younger age. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has three wins with three different drivers at Phoenix (Kyle Busch in 2005, Mark Martin in 2009 and Jeff Gordon in 2011).
— Elliott is winless in nine Cup starts at Phoenix.
— His best Cup finish at Phoenix is second in the Nov. 2017 race.
— He finished seventh in the March race, leading a race-high 93 laps. A loose front left wheel forced him to pit from the lead on Lap 156 of the 316-lap race. He lost a lap but got back on the lead lap less than 40 laps later.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Elliott says: “I feel like when we’ve been at our best, I feel like we’ve competed with the best in the series. I think if we do the right things, make the right calls throughout the week, the right adjustments and tweaks on the car from that first race, there’s no reason why I don’t think we can go and have a shot.”
Gustafson says: “I think each one of the crew chiefs have their strengths, each one of the teams have their strengths, and they’re all different. Each competitor has a different area that they excel at. It’s going to be all about who can optimize their strengths the most, shield their weaknesses the most. It’s going to be an interesting part of the dynamic. I think everybody kind of has tendencies, they have strengths and weaknesses. I think we all know what those are. We’ll do the best we can to compete and take advantage of them.
Nate Ryan’s analysis: NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was unusually emotive after the Martinsville victory because his team seized the moment as never before. The normally taciturn Elliott says he is letting himself enjoy that validation, and he seems to be in a relaxed yet focused frame of mind for a title pursuit.
Dustin Long’s analysis: A championship by Elliott in the final race for Jimmie Johnson as a full-time Cup competitor could be viewed as the passing of the torch from one champion to the next. NASCAR has been known for its storybook finishes and what a way it would be to end the 2020 season. Team must avoid mistakes to have that chance.
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Crew chief: Chris Gabehart
Wins: 7 in 2020 (44 in career)
Talladega II (playoffs)
Speeding Penalties in 2020: 4 (Las Vegas I, Charlotte II, Richmond, Talladega II)
Championship notes: Hamlin is the only driver who was in last year’s Championship 4 race to make it back this year. If he wins the race to claim the title, it will tie his career-high for victories in a season. In the four races since his Talladega playoff win, Hamlin has not finished better than ninth.
— Finished 20th in the March race after his car was damaged in an incident between Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski.
— In a must-win situation last November, he triumphed at Phoenix to advance to the championship race.
— Has 13 top-five finishes in 30 career Cup stats at Phoenix.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Hamlin says: “I don’t think that our competition underestimates us at all. I think that our results haven’t been very good over the last 10 weeks, but I think our performance has been good. They are not mutually exclusive. I think when you have so many elements that goes into your finishing position, you have to have all of them aligned for it all to come together to equal one. But I think our on‑track performance has been ‑‑ I think through the playoffs, we’ve led as many laps as ‑‑ we average it all out, we’ve led as many laps and won as many races ‑‑ maybe not won as many races but been in contention to win as many as we have all year. I think it’s unlikely anyone considers us an underdog, especially our competition.”
Gabehart says: “You certainly got to learn from your mistakes and your successes, right? That’s part of getting better. It’s definitely not in my mind. I’m not concerned of making those same issues again (too much tape added to Hamlin’s car in last year’s finale). I can tell you we’ve learned from them. For better or worse, we’re going to put our best foot forward, give Denny the best platform we can as a race team to go out and perform, then we’re going to let him perform. I’m looking forward to that opportunity. I think we’ll have a great shot at it.”
Nate Ryan’s analysis: If he comes up short of a first championship again, Hamlin already has a prepared concession speech that admirably looks at the bright side. No one would refuse being in the company of Mark Martin and Junior Johnson. But titles remain career-defining, and Hamlin desperately wants this one.
Dustin Long’s analysis: Once viewed as a leading title contender, Hamlin comes into this race with little momentum. This team overcame the odds to win at Phoenix last year to make the title race and will need another such performance to win this year’s title.
Team: Team Penske
Crew chief: Jeremy Bullins
Wins: 4 in 2020 (34 in career)
Speeding Penalties in 2020: 3 (Bristol I, Atlanta, Martinsville II)
Championship notes: Brad Keselowski has won the last two races (New Hampshire and Richmond) that used the tire compound that will be run this weekend at Phoenix. Keselowski led 53.6% of the laps in those two races. He will have the same car at Phoenix as he raced at New Hampshire and Richmond. The 2012 champion would become the 17th driver in series history to win multiple titles if he does captures the crown Sunday.
— He is winless in 22 career Cup starts at Phoenix.
— Finished 11th and won the second stage despite being involved in an incident with Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin in the opening stage of the March race. Led 82 laps.
— Has one finish better than 10th in the last six Phoenix Cup races.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Keselowski says: “I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship. It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.”
Bullins says: “Seems like there’s one strategy that’s predominantly going to be the one that’s the right play. Usually when you see somebody off sequence, you’re trying to make something happen, recovering from a penalty or something like that. I think the strategy part of it should be pretty straightforward honestly. Cautions at the wrong time or things like that might change that.”
Nate Ryan’s analysis: The mantra might be “Why not us?” but the No. 2 team answered a more important question – is this it for Keselowski at Team Penske? – long earlier this year. A career renaissance earned the driver a one-year contract extension. A championship could go even further to solidify his standing.
Dustin Long’s analysis: Provided he can avoid problems, he’ll be the champion. No one has beat his car in the last two races it has run with the tire compound that will be used this weekend. Game. Set. Match. Keselowski.
Team: Team Penske
Crew chief: Paul Wolfe
Wins: 3 in 2020 (26 in career)
Las Vegas I
Kansas II (playoffs)
Speeding Penalties in 2020: 2 (Coke 600, Bristol I)
Championship notes: Victory at Kansas made Logano the first driver to secure a spot in the Championship 4. That gave his team two weeks to focus on its Phoenix car. This is the fourth title race appearance for the 2018 champ. He’s made the Championship 4 in 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20. Logano would become the 17th driver in series history to win multiple titles if he does captures the crown Sunday.
— Won the March race, the final race before the season was paused 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic. Led 60 laps. Was his second win in the first four races working with crew chief Paul Wolfe.
— Finished 12th or worse in four of the last seven Phoenix races.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Logano says: “I think the experience is there, the speed is there. I think 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.”
Wolfe says:“All the Penske cars have been fast at all the short tracks. Brad has been pretty dominant at a couple of those races. We have a lot of confidence going to Phoenix. At this point in the season I can’t think of a better place to go to take a shot at this championship than Phoenix.”
Nate Ryan’s analysis: Proclaiming himself the favorite under similar circumstances certainly worked two years ago, but it speaks well of Logano’s confidence that he willingly volunteered himself again. Many athletes say they love performing under pressure, but there are few who make it seem as believable as Logano.
Dustin Long’s analysis: While the storylines center on Chase Elliott (first time in title race), Denny Hamlin (can he finally score his first crown?) and Brad Keselowski (strength with this package/tire), it’s easy to overlook Joey Logano. Just like so many did in 2018 … when he won the championship.