The laps of tussle and suspense that finalized the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 drivers last week in the penultimate race of the season has ensured a high-octane excitement level for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and is sure to deliver a memorable end to the 2021 season.
“Certainly, I think when you look at the four [drivers] that are in it [Championship 4 Round], I think it’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race,” Denny Hamlin acknowledged. “I think all of them would be deserving champions.”
Reigning series champion Chase Elliott, 24, will try to become the first driver to earn back-to-back titles since his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson won five straight from 2006-2010.
His Hendrick teammate Kyle Larson, 29, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Regular Season Champion and series-best nine-race winner is looking to earn his first NASCAR title and cap a season for the record books in his Championship 4 debut.
They will face Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin, who challenged Larson for the regular season title all the way down to the wire. The 40-year-old veteran is looking for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship after three previous times in the Championship 4. His best previous championship run was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2010.
The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., 41, fills out the Championship foursome. This is his fifth appearance in the Championship 4 Round and should he win, Truex would become only the seventh driver in NASCAR history to hoist a championship trophy with two different teams. He won in 2017 with Furniture Row Racing.
The truth, however, is that these four drivers aren’t likely contemplating what legacies they can leave behind right now. They still have a race to win – or at least the challenge of bettering their three title challengers.
On the full 2021 season, Larson has unquestionably set the bar. Beyond the nine wins – double that of any other driver in the series – his 2,474 laps led is also twice that of any competitor. His 19 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes are a series-best too.
The big task for the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be earning that first career win at the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway. Larson’s led only 72 laps in 14 starts at Phoenix – the lowest laps led among the Championship 4 drivers. He has five top-five and eight top-10 finishes, including a best showing of runner-up in the 2017 Spring race. He was seventh at Phoenix this March and has finished at least seventh or better in his last five races there.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is second only to Larson in the most important season statistics, however, the veteran does boast the best Average Finish (8.6) in the series and also the best Average Finish (10.7) at Phoenix among the four championship-eligible drivers. His two wins at Phoenix are most among that of the Playoff foursome as well – as is his laps led (854) tally.
The defending series champion Elliott certainly proved himself up to the title task last year, winning by nearly 3-seconds over the other three 2020 title challengers, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Hamlin. And his crew chief Alan Gustafson is the only crew chief among the Championship 4 with a championship to his name already.
Elliott’s work in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at Phoenix has been top shelf. His 11.2 average finish is second only to Hamlin’s among the four title contenders. He has seven top-10 and four top-five finishes in 11 Phoenix starts and his 402 laps led there is also second to Hamlin among the Championship 4.
Truex comes in as the most recent Phoenix winner scoring a nearly 2-second win over Logano this March. It was a definite step-up at the track for the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. His 15.4 average finish at Phoenix in 31 starts is lowest among the Championship 4, and only 12th-best in the series.
He has only five career top-five finishes at the track, but has already proven himself in championship form in 2021 with four race wins – second only to Larson among the finalists. All four of those victories, actually, have come with the same 750-horsepower, low downforce package being used this weekend.
“We’ve had a great season – definitely some ups and downs – and I feel like we’ve fought for everything we’ve got this year,” said Truex, whose five Championship 4 appearances ties him with JGR teammate Kyle Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick for most in the series.
“That’s just our team’s mentality to never give up and keep fighting. I think that definitely showed last weekend at Martinsville when we ran up front all day, then got knocked back late in the race and had to do everything we could to advance and we were able to do that.
“This weekend is something we’ve been working for this entire season and have really been excited for after how we ran in the Spring. We’re definitely looking forward to the opportunity and we’re ready to give it our best shot.”
There are five drivers outside the Championship 4 mix with previous Phoenix victories, including Harvick, who has a track record nine wins. Kyle Busch has three. Logano and Ryan Newman each have two wins and Kurt Busch has one victory.
Important to note, all three NASCAR national series will have practice and qualifying sessions this week in advance of the championship races.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!