The final lap: Dissecting the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Tucson’s Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, lead during the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway in March. Logano was the first driver to advance to the Championship 4. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A racing season marked by tragedy with a deadly wreck at the Daytona 500 and the challenges of COVID-19 has since gone on to become an overwhelming success. There was a historical stretch of dominance between two of the sport’s best, some of the most competitive racing in years and the revelation that NASCAR could adapt to an ever-changing climate by implementing progressive strides.

And it all comes to an end in the inaugural championship event this Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

Joey Logano was the first driver to advance to the Championship 4 with an unlikely victory at Kansas Speedway that proved to be the difference-maker in deciding the title contenders. Chase Elliott, a two-time most popular driver, put on a clinic in the semifinal race at Martinsville Speedway and put himself in a position that’s eluded him since joining the Cup Series.

These two victories in turn enabled Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski to narrowly advance to the main event on points at the expense of Kevin Harvick. Many were critical of the 2014 Champion’s exclusion from a shot at the title, but a lackluster showing late in the postseason was not enough after a regular season of successes.

The bottom line is the Championship 4 of Elliott, Hamlin, Keselowski and Logano are as deserving as any and they’re rightfully being rewarded for their teams’ relentless efforts and consistency through 35 races. Each driver could easily make a case for why he will be the one hoisting the Bill France Cup in the Valley of the Sun come Sunday.

Here’s your guide for deciding who will become the first driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott has a chance to become the youngest champion since the driver he took over for – Jeff Gordon – won it all in 1995.
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Entering as the fan favorite, Elliott has quite a reputation to live up to. The son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, he began his full-time career in the Cup Series in 2016 where he served as the successor to Jeff Gordon. The 24-year-old now has a chance to become the youngest champion since the driver he took over for won it all in 1995.

More than just a name, Elliott’s on-track success speaks for itself. The Georgia native became the quickest driver in the sport’s history to reach 10 wins when he secured his career-high fourth single-season win at Martinsville last week.

Although winless in the desert thus far, Elliott has amassed quite the resume at Phoenix Raceway. In fact, he led the most laps in the Spring race, but late-race cautions and an untimely pit stop prevented him from tasting victory.

The racing prodigy finds himself in unfamiliar territory making the Championship 4, but he’ll have a shot at redemption on the biggest stage possible this Sunday.

“I think for us, I feel like when we’ve been at our best, I feel like we’ve competed with the best in the series,” Elliott said. “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.”

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin won at Phoenix in November 2019, but under a drastically different rules package. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

If there’s a favorite heading into the series finale, it would have to be Hamlin, but It should be noted that in March his day here came to an end on Lap 65 due to a crash and as a result he wasn’t able to compile any notes and data for the Fall race at Phoenix.

However, it’s impossible to ignore what Hamlin has accomplished in 2020. He backed up arguably the best season of his career with an even better performance with seven wins and 20 top-10 finishes, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be considered the favorite.

“I thought I was in a good position last year and things just didn’t work out right, so there’s no givens,” Hamlin admitted. “I don’t think there’s any favorites. I view all my competition equally, that they’re all dangerous in their own different ways.”
It’s also worth noting that Hamlin won at Phoenix in November 2019, but under a drastically different rules package. He’s stated it would be “naive” to build off of that set-up, but remains confident in his Joe Gibbs Racing team’s ability to adapt — like they have all season.

Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski is being called the dark horse of the Championship 4 even though he has four wins on the season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

In what Keselowski called “silently one of the best seasons of my career,” the driver of the No. 2 car is being called the dark horse of the Championship 4, but he should be considered anything but that. While four wins on the season is impressive, what is even more impressive is where he got those victories.

Phoenix Raceway is a flat, one-mile track that began using a new low-downforce package and new tire in 2020. There are two other tracks (New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway) that ring in at the same length and near the same banking while using the same parameters as the Avondale track.

Keselowski not only won at both of these tracks, he dominated. Not to mention, he led 82 laps at Phoenix in the Spring and had arguably the car to beat until a late pit stop prevented a potential victory. The bottom line is that Keselowski is good on these types of tracks. Really good.

“I would say I feel pretty darned good,” Keselowski said. “There’s nothing guaranteed, but I’m very confident we’re going to go there and be very competitive and have a great shot to win the race. That’s what I can guarantee is that we’ll be there, we’ll be focused. My team is going to bring a great car, and the chips will fall where they will from there, but our preparation and all that will — it’s already at a very high level, and I feel good about that.”

Keselowski has not won at Phoenix during his 13-year Cup career, but he believes he’s lost out on so many opportunities that it owes him one. The 2012 Champion reiterated the confidence he has in his team’s ability to deliver on Sunday by revealing he’s bringing the same infamous Miller Lite glass he celebrated with eight years ago with plans to use it once more.

Joey Logano

By winning the opening race in the Round of 8, Logano and the Team Penske crew had the luxury of preparing for Phoenix. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Although Logano has not found victory lane since Phoenix in March, the 30-year-old has finally caught fire and is the only title contender to string together four consecutive top-10s in the last four races. Making his fourth appearance in the Championship 4, Logano admits to feeling deja vu in regards to how his season played out: strong in the beginning, slow in the summer and a win in the opening race in the Round of 8, much like his championship season in 2018.

The most compelling argument for Logano’s claim to the Cup resides in his success at flat, one-mile tracks using the low-downforce package. The No. 22 team boasts an astounding 2.7 average finish – the best by far of any competitor this season.

Perhaps Logano’s greatest advantage lies in time and knowledge. By winning the opening race in the Round of 8, the Team Penske crew had the luxury of preparing for Phoenix, while each of the other title hopefuls were left scrambling until last week at Martinsville.

With momentum, time and results on his side, it’s going to be tough to take down Logano.

“I think the experience is there, the speed is there, the mentality of the way we race is there and I truly believe that we’re the favorites to win this thing,” Logano said. “I think we’ve proven our team is definitely the team to beat. We’re well-rounded. I think that’s something that can help us.”

This will undoubtedly be a battle for the ages between four drivers all deserving of the title “Champion.” The two Team Penske products of Keselowski and Logano will be on the hunt for their second title, while Elliott and Hamlin seek to cement a legacy of their own. With no clear-cut favorite, this is about as even-matched as it can get for a championship event.

Watch the madness unfold at Phoenix Raceway at 1 p.m. MT on NBC to see who will bask in the glory of the Arizona sun.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Cole Cusumano was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, but has lived in Arizona for more than 14 years. He expects to graduate in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is a digital reporter for Cronkite News with an emphasis on sports.