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Analysis: Why each Championship 4 driver will (or won’t) win at Phoenix

Rick Allen and Steve Letarte discuss the Round of 8 finale in the Cup playoffs, as Martinsville sees fireworks between Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin, as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., and Hamlin advance.

The NASCAR Cup Series championship race (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) is wide open on paper as Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. each have relevant strengths and weaknesses that may surface in Phoenix.

Here is analytics-driven rationale as to why — and why not — each of the four championship-eligible drivers has a shot at claiming NASCAR’s crown:

Denny Hamlin

Why he’ll win: Raw speed

Without question, Hamlin owns the most favorable speed record on 750-horsepower tracks this season among the Championship 4. He ranks first in average median lap time ranking on this track type, which includes Phoenix, and first in average best lap time ranking, the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race. His Joe Gibbs Racing car ranks as the fastest of the playoffs to date and ranked first specifically at Phoenix last spring.

These top rankings hold weight. Prior to last year’s race, Chase Elliott placed atop the majority of relevant speed measures across the season. He went on to dominate the event and claim the championship. Sometimes prognostication in auto racing really is as simple as identifying the fastest car.

Why he won’t: He’s the least efficient passer of the four

Hamlin’s car makes plenty of passes. In fact, 52.57% of his pass encounters are passes in his favor, a rate that ranks fifth among series regulars. But that belies his efficiency. Based on a statistical expectation formed by his average running position in each individual race and a field-wide slope, this rate should be higher by at least 0.51 percentage points.

While this seems like a minor stat-geek gripe, it’s notable because each of his three competitors for the championship secured positive surplus passing values this season. In this category, Elliott ranks first in the Cup Series (+2.71%), while Kyle Larson ranks second (+2.05%) and Martin Truex Jr. ranks 12th (+0.33%). Hamlin’s mark ranks 21st, suggesting he’s at a disadvantage if the race is predominately shaped by long green-flag runs and he’s without clean air or good track position, situations in which straightforward passing is required.

Chase Elliott

Why he’ll win: He’s better than his results suggest

Elliott ranks second to Hamlin — and ahead of both Truex and Larson — in average best lap ranking on 750-horsepower ovals but it’s a designation he can’t seem to sustain. Possibly due to frequent handling imbalance for the duration of long runs, Elliott’s car ranks fifth in average median lap ranking, suggesting he’s underachieved to a degree this season, both in speed and results.

His best performance on an oval this year came last week in Martinsville, when he turned the fastest lap and the fastest median lap on a day when he commanded the lead for 57.7% of the race. He rounded into championship form similarly last season, winning both Martinsville and Phoenix; if last week’s showing was a glimpse of what’s to come, then it’s fair to think of him as Hendrick Motorsports’ best shot to win on Sunday.

Why he won’t: He’s ill suited for a chaotic race

Could this be a caution-filled tilt? The yearlong trend is one of low caution volumes, but recent weeks have seen an increased disregard of the typical give-and-take dynamic between competitors. If Sunday’s contest does indeed break chaotic, Elliott appears to be the Championship 4 driver with the most to lose.

His Production in Equal Equipment Rating in races averaging two or fewer cautions per 100 miles ranks third, trailing only Hamlin and Larson. But his PEER in races with a higher volume ranks eighth. This production split makes sense given that a calamitous race yields a high number of short runs, neutralizing his biggest strength: A long-run passing ability that quantifiably fares as the best in the Cup Series.

Kyle Larson

Why he’ll win: Long runs and good track position

Larson ranks as the second-most efficient long-run passer this season and the most efficient passer on 750-horsepower tracks specifically. Additionally, Cliff Daniels has emerged as an able defender of Larson’s running position on green-flag pit cycles, retaining all top-five spots at a 62.2% rate, the best among Championship 4 crew chiefs. In tandem and coupled with the best yearlong speed across all track types, the No. 5 team is a long-run stalwart.

Good track position, most likely earned as a result of long-run offense, should act as his best defense for what’s bound to be a volatile restart dynamic. From the front row, Larson has retained his position on 85.7% of playoff-race restarts; from the second through seventh rows, his retention rate drops to a more pedestrian 64% clip, indicating a clear benefit to this team from controlling the race as the leader.

Why he won’t: His elite speed isn’t universal

For the most part, Larson and Daniels have done an exceptional job at producing speed across all tracks in an era of specialization. They turned the fastest median lap in 13 different races; however, their “slow” races share a common denominator: He’s plenty vulnerable to the style of track he’ll see this weekend.

On conservatively banked 750-hp tracks, Larson’s speed failed to impress. He ranked fifth in median lap time earlier this year in Phoenix, the first in a pattern of uninspiring speed. He ranked fourth in the Martinsville spring race, 21st in the Richmond spring race, seventh at New Hampshire, fifth in the Richmond playoff race and seventh in last week’s Round of 8 finale in Martinsville. He won none of those races, averaging an 8.3-place finish across the slate.

Martin Truex Jr.

Why he’ll win: Late-race speed

A common theme beneath each of Truex’s wins this season was his team’s ability to produce the fastest median lap time in either the final stage (Phoenix, Darlington and Richmond) or across the final 100 laps of an exceptionally long final stage (Martinsville). A combination of Truex’s feedback over the course of a race and James Small’s use of the competition caution and the initial stage break to make adjustments allowed the team to get progressively faster in key 750-horsepower races.

In theory, having a practice session on the weekend schedule should eliminate the need for such early guesswork, allowing them an initial race speed that’s eluded them on most tracks.

Why he won’t: Self-inflicted wounds

Truex has a knack for earning procedural penalties while in a position of power. From missing the chicane under caution in the Daytona Clash exhibition to speeding on pit road after winning strategy gambits at Road America and Darlington to jumping the initial start of the race at Richmond, Truex buried himself while on or near the lead in marquee moments this year.

Naturally, a penalty is something each of the Championship 4 should strive to avoid but his team’s slow-burn improvement over the course of each race is only rewarding if the track position is already favorable. In order to pull off highlight-reel, race-winning restarts, like the pass on Joey Logano last spring in Phoenix, he’ll first need to be within sniffing distance of the lead.