Analyzing Cup Championship 4 contenders

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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:


Age: 24

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Crew chief: Alan Gustafson

Wins: 4 in 2020 (10 in career)

Charlotte II

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.


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.


Age: 39

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Crew chief: Chris Gabehart

Wins: 7 in 2020 (44 in career)

Daytona 500

Darlington II


Pocono II

Kansas I

Dover I

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.


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.



Age: 36

Team: Team Penske

Crew chief: Jeremy Bullins

Wins: 4 in 2020 (34 in career)

Coke 600

Bristol I

New Hampshire


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.


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.



Age: 30

Team: Team Penske

Crew chief: Paul Wolfe

Wins: 3 in 2020 (26 in career)

Las Vegas I

Phoenix 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.


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.

Truck starting lineup at WWT Raceway: Ty Majeski wins pole


Ty Majeski will lead the Craftsman Truck starting lineup to the green flag Saturday at World Wide Technology Raceway after winning the pole Friday night.

Majeski claimed his fourth career series pole and first of the season with a lap of 138.168 mph around the 1.25-mile speedway.

MORE: Truck starting lineup at WWT Raceway

Ben Rhodes, who won last week at Charlotte, qualified second with a lap of 137.771 mph. He was followed by Christian Eckes (137.716 mph), Carson Hocevar (137.057) and Stewart Friesen (137.007).

The series races at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1.

Saturday Portland Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


There have been different winners in each of the last nine Xfinity Series races this season. Will the streak continue Saturday at Portland International Raceway?

Those nine different winners have been: Sammy Smith (Phoenix), Austin Hill (Atlanta), AJ Allmendinger (Circuit of the Americas), Chandler Smith (Richmond), John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville), Jeb Burton (Talladega), Ryan Truex (Dover), Kyle Larson (Darlington) and Justin Allgaier (Charlotte).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Portland International Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 10 a.m. … Practice begins at 11:30 a.m. … Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 4:15 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Donnie Floyd of Motor Racing Outreach at 4:30 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed at 4:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 75 laps (147.75 miles) on the 1.97-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 4:30 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 4 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4 p.m. and can be heard on … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 73 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last year’s inaugural Xfinity race at Portland by 2.8 seconds. Myatt Snider finished second. Austin Hill placed third.

NASCAR Friday schedule at WWT Raceway, Portland


Craftsman Truck Series teams will be on track Friday at World Wide Technology Raceway to prepare for Saturday’s race. Cup teams will go through inspection before getting on track Saturday.

Xfinity Series teams will go through inspection Friday in preparation for their race Saturday at Portland International Raceway.

Here is Friday’s schedule:

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)


Friday: Partly cloudy with a high in the low 90s.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series (no track activity on Friday)

Friday 5: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?


NASCAR Cup teams have paid nearly $1 million in fines this season, more than triple what they paid last season for inspection-related infractions.

The money — $975,000 after just 14 of 36 points races — goes to the NASCAR Foundation. While the fines help a good cause, it is a troubling number, a point that a senior NASCAR official made clear this week.

Stewart-Haas Racing was the latest Cup team to be penalized. NASCAR issued a $250,000 fine, among other penalties, for a counterfeit part found on Chase Briscoe’s car following Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. The team cited a “quality control lapse” for a part that “never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week that if violations continue, the sanctioning body will respond. NASCAR discovered the infraction with Briscoe’s car at the R&D Center. Series officials also discovered a violation with Austin Dillon’s car at the R&D Center after the Martinsville race in April.

“If we need to bring more cars (to the R&D Center), we’ll do that,” he said. “Our part of this as the sanctioning body is to keep a level playing field for all the competitors, and that’s what they expect us to do and that’s what we’ll continue to do. … Whatever we need to do, we will do that.”

Sawyer also noted that the “culture” of race teams needs to change with the Next Gen car.

“From a business model and to be equitable and sustainable going forward, this was the car that we needed,” Sawyer said. “To go with that, we needed a deterrent model that would support that.

“We’ve been very clear. We’ve been very consistent with this … and we will continue to do that. The culture that was in our garage and in the race team shops on the Gen-6 car was more of a manufacturing facility. The Next Gen car, that’s not the business model.

“The race teams, they’re doing a better job. We still have a lot of work to do, but they have to change that culture within the walls of the race shop.”

While NASCAR has made it clear that single-source vendor parts are not to be modified, teams will look for ways to find an advantage. With the competition tight — there have been 22 different winners in the first 50 races of the Next Gen car era — any advantage could be significant.

Twelve races remain, including Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway, before the playoffs begin. The pressure is building on teams.

“Some race teams, at this stage in the game, their performance is not where they would like for it to be and they’re going to be working hard,” Sawyer said. “If they feel like they need to step out of bounds and do things and just take the risk, then they may do that. That’s not uncommon. We’ve seen that over the years.

“The one thing that we have to keep in mind is we’ve raced the Next Gen car for a full season. We’re in year two, just say 18 months into it. So last year, they were just getting the parts and pieces, getting ready, getting cars prepared and getting to the racetrack.

“Now they’ve had them for a year. They’ve had them for an offseason. It’s given their engineers and the people back in the shop a lot more time to think, ‘Maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.’

“By bringing these cars back (to the R&D Center) and taking them down to basically the nuts and bolts and a thorough inspection — and we will continue to do that — I believe we will get our message across. We’ll have to continue to do this for some period in time, but I have great faith that we will get there.”

A similar message was delivered by Sawyer to drivers this week when NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in retaliation for being forced into the wall.

Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “in the heat of the battle things happen, but (drivers) have to learn to react in a different way.”

Sawyer also noted that the message on how to race wasn’t just for those in Cup.

“We have to get that across not only to our veterans, guys that are superstars like Denny, like Bubba (Wallace) and like Chase and all our of national series Cup drivers, but also our young drivers that are coming up through the ranks that are racing in the Northeast in modifieds and in short tracks across the country,” he said. “That’s just not an acceptable behavior in how you would race your other competitors.

“There are a lot of things you can do to show your displeasure. That’s just not going to be one of them that we’re going to tolerate.”

2. Special ride 

Corey LaJoie gets to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car this weekend due to Chase Elliott’s one-race suspension.

“It’s a far cry difference from when I started my Cup career six years ago,” LaJoie said on his “Stacking Pennies” podcast this week. “There was a Twitter page “Did Corey crash?” … Going from that guy just trying to swim and stay above water and trying to learn the ropes to filling in for a champion like Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports, it feels surreal.”

It was a little more than three years ago that LaJoie gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten note to be considered to replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car after the 2020 season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February 2020 of LaJoie’s letter. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

LaJoie admitted on his podcast this week that he wouldn’t have been ready to drive the No. 48 car then.

“I wouldn’t have been ready, whether it be in my maturation, my game, my knowledge of the race cars,” he said. “The person that I was wasn’t ready for the opportunity like that.”

Now he gets the chance. He enters this weekend 19th in the season standings, 38 points behind Alex Bowman for what would be the final playoff spot at this time.

“It’s an opportunity to hopefully show myself, as well as other people, what I’ve been thinking (of) my potential as a race car driver,” LaJoie said on his podcast. “But I also think you have to just settle in and be appreciative of the opportunity.”

3. Special phone call

With Corey LaJoie moving into Chase Elliott’s car for Sunday’s Cup race, LaJoie’s car needed a driver. Craftsman Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar will make his Cup debut in LaJoie’s No. 7 car for Spire Motorsports.

Once details were finalized this week, the 20-year-old Hocevar called his dad.

“I don’t know if he really believed it,” Hocevar said.

He told his dad: “Hey, this is actually happening.”

His father owns a coin and jewelry shop and is looking to close the store Sunday and have someone watch his two puppies so he can attend the race.

For Hocevar, it’s quite a turnaround for a driver who has been at the center of controversy at times.

Ryan Preece was critical of Hocevar’s racing late in the Charlotte Truck event in May 2022. Preece said to FS1: “All you kids watching right now wanting to get to this level, don’t do that. Race with respect. Don’t wreck the guy on the outside of you trying to win your first race. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

NASCAR penalized Hocevar two laps for hooking Taylor Gray in the right rear during the Truck race at Martinsville in April.

Hocevar acknowledged he has had to change how he drives.

“Last year was really, really tough for me and that’s no excuse,” Hocevar said this week. “I just was mentally wrong on a lot of things, had the wrong mindset. I wanted to win so badly that I thought I could outwork stuff and it kind of turned some people away. … I wasn’t enjoying the time there. I was letting the results dictate that.

“I was taking results too personal. If we were going to be running seventh, I took it as I was a seventh-place driver and I wasn’t good enough. So I started making desperate moves. I did desperate things at times, even last year, that I’ve been able to calm down and look myself in the mirror and had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations.”

He called the Martinsville race “a turning point” for him and knew he needed to change how he drove. He enters this weekend’s Truck race with three consecutive top-five finishes.

4. Moving forward

In a way, Zane Smith can relate to what Carson Hocevar will experience this weekend. Smith, competing in the Truck Series, made his Cup debut last year at World Wide Technology Raceway. Smith filled in for RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who missed the race because of COVID-19 symptoms. Smith finished 17th.

“That one that I got for RFK Racing was a huge opportunity,” Smith said of helping him get some Cup rides this season. “I was super thankful for that. I think that run we had got my stock up and then, honestly, getting the Truck championship helped that rise as well.

“I think just time in the Cup car is so important, and I think once that new Cup car came out, people realized that you don’t have to do the route of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. The Cup car is so far apart from anything, though it does kind of race like a truck, so I don’t think you need to go that round of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.

“I’m happy for these Cup starts that I’m getting. I’m happy for that one that I got last year at a place like Gateway. I think every time that you’re in one you learn a lot.”

Smith has made five Cup starts this season, finishing a career-best 10th in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 for Front Row Motorsports. The former Truck champion has two Truck series wins this year and is third in the season standings.

5. Notable numbers

A look at some of notable numbers heading into this weekend’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois:

5 — Most points wins in the Next Gen car (William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott)

7 — Different winners in the last seven points races: Christopher Bell (Bristol Dirt), Kyle Larson (Martinsville), Kyle Busch (Talladega), Martin Truex Jr. (Dover), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), William Byron (Darlington), Ryan Blaney (Coca-Cola 600).

17 — Points between first (Ross Chastain) and sixth (Christopher Bell) in the Cup standings

88 — Degrees at Kansas, the hottest temperature for a Cup race this season (the forecast for Sunday’s race calls for a high in the low 90s)

100 — Consecutive start for Austin Dillon this weekend

500 — Cup start for Brad Keselowski this weekend

687 — Laps led by William Byron, most by any Cup driver this season

805 — Cup start for Kevin Harvick this weekend, tying him with Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list.