All gas, no breaks: NASCAR Cup Series Championship revs up for Phoenix finale

Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain will compete in the final four for the NASCAR crown Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The dramatic conclusion to one of NASCAR’s all-time unique seasons takes place this weekend, with one of the most diverse groups of Championship 4 drivers ever set to battle for the Cup Series Championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

This year’s field features two former champions, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano, along with two final four first-timers in Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain. While Elliott and Logano are long established, Bell and Chastain emerged to make their presence known this season, consistently being in the mix week in and week out.

Now, only days away, NASCAR will pit the four best drivers of the 2022 season in the championship. Each driver holds the most wins on their team this season, while consistently picking up points along the way.

Elliott enters Sunday as a +230 favorite, according to DraftKings’ latest odds. Bell has the next highest odds at +300, with Logano and Chastain tied for lowest odds at +400 among the top four.

Come Sunday, it’s anyone’s race the way Logano sees it.

“I feel like our team is in a great spot for a lot of reasons,” Logano said. “For one, we’re not happy to be here. We’re not just happy to be in the Championship 4, this isn’t enough for us. I think with that mentality and the three weeks that we’ve had since Vegas to really focus in here is gonna give us a huge advantage to not only have a good practice plan and set our car up but also execute this race correctly.”

Bell took home the checkered flag last Sunday in Martinsville – his second straight walk-off win in an elimination race after he wrecked out of the Las Vegas race to begin the Round of 8 on Oct. 16. A wreck between Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson forced him out of competition and put him in must-win territory last week.

Chastain’s dream of racing for the Cup Series Championship wavered heading into the final turn at Martinsville. The No. 1 car ran wide open through the corner, running right against the wall through the whole corner, somehow managing to go from 10th place to 5th and passing arch-rival Denny Hamlin at the line to snatch victory from the No. 11 car.

Chastain and Hamlin had more than their fair share of run-ins throughout this season, with multiple incidents between the drivers creating NASCAR’s next great rivalry. Hamlin was not Chastain’s only foe throughout the season when his inexperience affected other drivers, but Chastain feels it’s just a part of being the young guy.

“The guys that were mad at me had guys mad at them 10 years ago, 20 years ago, whatever,” Chastain said. “I think the good ole days get remembered a little better than they actually were, and probably not as nice and rosy as they all like to try and say their old days were. Working through it we’re all human.”

Elliott has been the most consistent driver in the field this season, winning the regular-season championship. He leads the way with five wins this season, including winning at Talladega in the Round of 12.

Coming off last Sunday's drama in Martinsville, Virginia, the NASCAR Cup Series shifts to Phoenix Raceway for a weekend full of intrigue. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Getty Images)

Coming off last Sunday’s drama in Martinsville, Virginia, the NASCAR Cup Series shifts to Phoenix Raceway for a weekend full of intrigue. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Getty Images)

The 2020 Cup Series champion has raced in the Championship 4 in the past two seasons and knows well the difference in how drivers race the Championship track compared to regular-season races.

“Coming from somebody who’s been on both ends of that, in years where I haven’t been a part of it and I see a guy coming along and he’s in the final four it’s like man, I’m not gonna put up the fight that I probably would on another weekend,” Elliott said. “I feel like there’s a respect level for people who have earned their spot and being here, it’s a very tough thing to do. It’s a great privilege to be part of that final four – I think all the drivers and teams recognize that.

I know when I haven’t been in, I feel like I’ve always given more respect to the guys who were in, and I feel the same like the last couple of years. I have received that same mentality from my competitors being a part of it as being fortunate enough to be one of the drivers.”

Last year in the Championship 4, Larson went from fourth to first on the final pit stop, giving himself the clean air he needed to ride home to victory and preventing Elliott from back-to-back titles.

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Unlike Elliott, Logano got the last two weeks to relax and not worry about securing his spot in Phoenix, thanks to his dramatic win in Las Vegas.

Logano will make his fifth appearance in the Championship 4. His title, however, came in 2018 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a much different track compared to Phoenix. Logano shouldn’t worry, as he has two wins and seven top-five finishes in the Valley.

One of the biggest challenges of Phoenix Raceway is pit road, one of the most difficult to navigate in the sport as drivers enter off of turn two and exit onto turn one.

Bell described how Saturday’s qualifying will play a huge role on pit road Sunday.

“It’s huge, and I think qualifying, while it does not mean a big deal for the race, I think it means a huge deal for pit selection,” Bell said. “The final four guys will pick first amongst themselves, so being the top qualifier and getting that number one pit stall is gonna be a huge advantage.”

Expect all four contenders to be in title contention when the final stage goes green and the Championship is within grasp, and whoever minimizes their mistakes should put themselves in a great chance to ride to the title.

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.