At some point this week, either before or during Sunday’s title race, each of the Championship 4 drivers may have a discussion with the devil.
Just how far will they go to win a championship?
NASCAR’s decision to move the season finale to Phoenix Raceway from Homestead-Miami Speedway presents a greater likelihood that title contenders could be closer together in the final laps.
Fans could see a bump-and-run for the championship. Or if done incorrectly, a bump-and-wreck for the title.
Such drama is among the reasons why NASCAR moved the playoff cutoff races to Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville. And moved the title race to Phoenix (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Closer racing means a greater chance for beating and banging.
Ryan Newman secured the final spot in the 2014 title race by forcing Kyle Larson into the wall to grab that position to transfer at Phoenix. In 2017, Chase Elliott paid back Denny Hamlin for contact at Martinsville that cost Elliott a win. Elliott bumped Hamlin and then pinched Hamlin into the wall at Phoenix. Hamlin suffered a tire rub and later crashed. He failed to advance to the championship race.
Now, a championship could be at stake. How will the playoff drivers play it?
“I think I’m probably a little more of a purist than what some of the younger guys that come into the sport now are,” Hamlin said. “I mean, you see Truck races and Xfinity races and guys just kind of running all over each other. That might just be the way racing is now. But it’s just not the way that I saw it back in the day, and so I modeled myself after guys that really kind of took care of their equipment and appreciated the purer side of things. You work a guy over.
“The art of working over a pass is such a beautiful thing if you can get it done. And so nowadays it’s just like, you just get frustrated after two laps and you knock the guy out of the way and move on and you don’t even have to say sorry later. It just becomes expected.
“Certainly within this final four everyone will have their own feelings about what they think is allowed and whatnot, but we’ve seen people within this group also make aggressive moves and everyone else is there watching. So it’s like, well, you can’t be mad if it comes back around to you because you’ve done it in the past.”
Joey Logano moved Martin Truex Jr. out of the way to win at Martinsville in 2018 and earn a spot in the title race. Logano won the championship that year.
The temptation of knocking someone out of the way to win the crown?
“Very well it can happen a lot easier,” Logano said. “You seen what happened at Martinsville last week (with Kevin Harvick wrecking Kyle Busch on the last lap to try to advance and was not penalized by NASCAR). Shoot, I was running fifth or so in the beginning of the race. They’re rooting and gauging each other out 20, 30 laps into the race, running into each other. Oh, boy, this is going to get crazy.
“That was just to get into the Championship 4. Imagine what it’s going to be to win the championship itself in Phoenix.”
In late May at Bristol, Logano hit the wall after Elliott dived under him to try to take the lead in the final laps and hit Logano. The contact allowed Keselowski to win that race.
Could that be a learning experience for Elliott if he needs to make a drastic move Sunday?
“I feel like when you get put in situations, you have to make a decision and go on down the road whether it works out or doesn’t work out,” Elliott said.
“It’s so hard to prepare for all of them because you don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you. What point in the race are you going to have a challenge, something not go your way, whatever. It’s so hard to simulate some of that because you don’t know until you get faced with it.
“Just try to rely on past situations, past experience, use those little pieces of learning experiences to make a better decision next time. That’s all we can do.”
Keselowski prefers to put his focus elsewhere.
“I would suspect that there will be some kind of moment where there will be a little fender‑bender,” he said. “How much? I don’t know.
“I haven’t put too much thought into that. Again, my focus is really on just getting in the lead and driving away. I hope we can do that and not have to worry about those things.”
2. Gone (from title contention) but not forgotten
Kevin Harvick still could become only the third driver to win 10 or more Cup races in a season in the last 25 years.
But he won’t win the championship even if he wins Sunday at Phoenix.
Harvick was eliminated last weekend at Martinsville. Denny Hamlin, who dueled Harvick throughout the season — at one point they combined to win nine of 14 races — talked to Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers this week.
“I understand their pain,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it easily could have been the other way around, They’re sitting there and they’re talking to us about, ‘Man, it sucks. You guys deserve it,’ but you’re not there.
“It would be hard for me to say, and you probably should ask them, but would they take a three‑win season and make it to the final four and not winning a championship or nine wins and not making the final four? I would take the nine wins and move on. It’s been a great season.”
Hamlin said before the playoffs began in September that the two “have a lot of respect between each other” and that the “right scenario” would be the two of them competing for the championship at Phoenix.
Childers expressed his gratitude for Hamlin reaching out this week, stating on Twitter: “I have really appreciated this, and the respect between the two teams all year long. The drivers, crew chiefs, road crews, pit crews, etc. It really has been top notch.”
3. A special car
Brad Keselowski will have the same car this weekend that he used to win with at New Hampshire and Richmond earlier this season.
But it wasn’t as easy as saving that car for Phoenix as Keselowski told NBC Sports on Thursday.
“I’m a car lover,” he said. “You get a car you like, you run it. That’s very anti-Penske. They don’t feel that way at all. So I get a lot of strange looks when I tell them, ‘Hey, this car is good.’ And they’ll look at me like ‘Oh, no, all of our cars are the same. We have this laser system. And the laser grid has all these cars exactly the same.’ I’m looking at them going, ‘Mmm-hmm. You’re overengineering this.
“Probably one of the biggest heartbreaks in my entire life. In 2014, went to Kentucky, we sat on the pole, led the majority of the race, probably were a half-tenth to a tenth faster than the field the whole weekend. Just awesome. Perfect weekend.
“I came back into the shop Monday for debriefs. By Monday afternoon, debriefs were done, and Kentucky being a Saturday race, the cars were back in the shop first thing Monday morning. By the time, we got done with debriefs around 4 or 5 o’clock on Monday, I walk back in the shop and there was that car and they’d cut it up. When I say cut it up, I’m not talking about like cut a fender off. There was nothing left of this car.
“I was just like how could you do that? And the whole group was, ‘Oh, we’ll build another one. This car had two races on it.’ I didn’t win another mile-and-a-half race that entire year.
“I sat through that experience and went please don’t ever do that again. I still get a lot of those looks from part of the manufacturing team at Penske. I do believe there are certain cars that, for whatever reason, perform slightly better than others. Yes, the quality control processes and procedures have evolved tremendously, but to say you can build every car the same, is a farce to me.
“When this came up when we were going to run this car again, I made sure it was not even an option for it to circulate outside of the Phoenix race.”
4. Special guests
The championship contenders in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks will be allowed a limited number of guests to attend their title races this weekend at Phoenix.
For Xfinity Championship 4 driver Justin Allgaier, he’ll have wife Ashley and 7-year-old daughter Harper Grace at the track for one of the first times this season.
“The fact of them being there, her and my wife both, means a lot to me,” Allgaier said. “It’s been probably one of the more rough circumstances of 2020 is just not being able to travel with them.”
While race weekends have mainly been one-day shows, Allgaier has often stayed through the next day for the Cup event, serving as a backup driver. He was used by Hendrick Motorsports at Indianapolis when Jimmie Johnson could not race after testing positive for the coronavirus.
While his family has not been able to travel with him most of this season, Allgaier’s daughter has been with him in spirit throughout the playoffs with the helmet she designed for him.
“One of the things I love is when she painted my helmet for 2020, her thought process immediately went to put the cacti from Phoenix, the logo, on to my helmet,” Allgaier said. “I told her the other day, if I do win at Phoenix and we win this championship, you’re going to have to paint cacti on my helmet forever, as long as we’re doing a playoff helmet and the season ends at Phoenix.”
5. Lucky break
That Brett Moffitt has a chance to win his second Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series title in the past three years is remarkable and shows how unusual this year has been.
Moffitt broke the femur in both legs on March 14, the day the Truck Series was scheduled to race at Atlanta. That race, though, had been called off the day before — the first NASCAR weekend postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
So instead of racing, Moffitt was with a friend on dirt bikes. Moffitt came up short on a double jump. His front tire hit the top of the landing ramp, sending him over the front of the bike but his feet stuck to the pegs.
“When I wrecked, the first thought was ‘What did I just do?’ and ‘What’s going to be the repercussions for it?’ ’’ he said. “I was probably 20 minutes into post-accident and that first 20 minutes I spent calling my manager, figuring out what we were going to do. I wasn’t even worried about calling an ambulance at the time. I was more worried about how we were going to handle it.
“You always got to be afraid that something like that could cost you your job. Thankfully the Gallagher family was very faithful and loyal to me and stood behind me the whole way and kept me in the truck and thankfully, the break was long enough to to recover and not miss a race.”