The case for who will win the Cup championship

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NASCAR’s season comes down to 312 laps today and four drivers racing for a Cup championship.

Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano seek to win a second series title and become only the 17th driver in series history with multiple crowns.

Denny Hamlin‘s quest for his first Cup championship continues. In his 15th full-time season, Hamlin already has a Hall of Fame resume but that doesn’t diminish his drive for a Cup crown.

Chase Elliott has Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet back in the Championship 4 for the first time since 2016. He seeks his first crown, matching the accomplishment his Hall of Fame father Bill achieved in 1988.

Who will win the title today at Phoenix Raceway?

Here is the case for each driver to emerge after Sunday’s race (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) holding the championship trophy.

Joey Logano

He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He’s shown he’s willing to be aggressive late in the race for the win. He won at Phoenix the last time the series raced there in March. And, he was the first driver to secure a spot in the Championship 4, giving his team two weeks to focus on their Phoenix car while his competitors didn’t advance until last weekend.

playoff standings
Joey Logano’s win at Kansas made him the first driver to advance to the Championship 4 round. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

Oh, he also has Paul Wolfe as his crew chief. Wolfe won the 2012 title with Keselowski and is viewed as one of the sharpest minds on pit road.

Logano could complete the Team Penske Xfinity-Cup sweep a day after Austin Cindric won the Xfinity title for the organization.

Logano won the 2018 title when it was the Big 3 and him. Few expected Logano to challenge the other title contenders that day. Logano is fueled by confidence and belief. He says believe is the rallying cry for this team.

There’s little reason to doubt Logano, who could celebrate his second title in three years and do so at the age of 30. Could this be the start of NASCAR’s next dynasty?

Quotable: “We’ve had three weeks to think about it, be ready for it. With those things I feel more confident than ever. I always go back to think about my first Championship 4 round back in 2014.  I remember crapping my pants about how nervous I was. … Now going through it before, knowing how to prepare for what’s coming ahead of you, that battle ahead of you, knowing you succeeded before in the championship round, it really gives you some confidence to go out there and do your job.” – Logano

– Dustin Long

 

Brad Keselowski

When team owner Roger Penske shocked many by shuffling his pit crew/driver combinations after last season, Brad Keselowski was viewed by some fans as getting the short end with Jeremy Bullins, the only Team Penske crew chief without a Cup title.

Keselowski told NBC Sports in January: “The way I see it, (Bullins is) the next one to win one.”

Brad Keselowski’s Phoenix car is the same one he won with at Richmond and New Hampshire. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, 36, could be viewed as the favorite. The tire compound that will be used at Phoenix has been run at New Hampshire and Richmond. Keselowski won both races, leading a combined 53.6% of those laps. He will have the same car today that he drove to those wins.

He could have won at Phoenix earlier this year. Keselowski was collected in a crash early in the March race. Even with a damaged car, he still won the second stage.

Ever since winning his first title, Keselowski has made it known how important it is to him to be a multi-time champion. He recognizes the situation he’s in and knows he might not get the chance every year (this is his first Championship 4 appearance since 2017 and only his second since the playoff format debuted in 2014). The time is now for Keselowski.

Quotable: I’ve had different conversations internally this week than I had the last time I was in the Championship 4, that at their most basic level come from a high level of confidence. 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.” – Keselowski.

– Dustin Long

 

CHASE ELLIOTT

The pressure seemed to be lifted like a massive weight off his shoulders by the victory at Martinsville Speedway, and NASCAR’s two-time most popular driver since has talked all week about savoring the moment.

There are many reasons why he could seize it again at Phoenix.

Power Rankings Martinsville
Chase Elliott’s Martinsville win last weekend showed he could perform in pressure situations. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

He led 93 laps after qualifying on pole position at the 1-mile oval in March. Hendrick Motorsports has been better suited for the 750-horsepower tracks this season, and there’s a lot of helpful information that can be gleaned, applied and advanced from what worked for Elliott at Phoenix eight months ago.

And there are many soundboards of boundless wisdom to lean on for Elliott, who has had a Hall of Fame father quietly but fiercely guiding and supporting him for the entirety of his career. Seven-time champion teammate Jimmie Johnson also has taken a keen interest in the development of Elliott, 24, and what is possibly Johnson’s final start would be the perfect setting for a passing of a generational torch to a new NASCAR Millennial champion.

Alan Gustafson, completing his 16th season as a crew chief, also has Championship 4 experience with Jeff Gordon. Elliott and Gustafson share a no-nonsense approach to racing, and brusque will be an operative word with only 312 laps to work with Sunday.

The only first-timer in the Championship 4, Elliott has the least experience and fewest victories among the contenders, but it’s a good time to be a rookie with Phoenix making its title track debut. It’s only the second race since the tweaking of downforce and horsepower, so Elliott has as many reps in this configuration.

The pressure is off for NASCAR’s young prince, and a desert coronation could be next.

Quotable: “We’ve had the speed and the performance at times to do it and be a contender, but we haven’t been able to rise to the occasion when it mattered most like we did (at Martinsville). In a lot of ways, I think it was that missing piece we’ve been needing.” – Elliott

– Nate Ryan

DENNY HAMLIN

The rallying cry here is simple: The No. 11 already has done this before and arguably under more pressure-packed circumstances. Facing a win-or-bust situation to advance to last year’s Championship 4, Hamlin rose to the occasion, leading 132 of the final 136 laps for a victory at Phoenix.

Denny Hamlin began the season with a Daytona 500 and looks to end it with a Phoenix win and a Cup title. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

There still is much at stake today as Hamlin takes his third shot at the Championship 4 and his fifth at having a chance to win the championship in the season finale. His NASCAR Hall of Fame credentials are secure, and being known as this generation’s Mark Martin would be worthy consolation. But a title would validate Hamlin, 39, in another way, particularly as he is poised to launch the next chapter of his career as a Cup car co-owner with Michael Jordan next season.

The team has exhibited the ability to win on any given week, the working relationship of Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart is unparalleled for implicit and mutual trust, and his second consecutive Daytona 500 victory (in which Hamlin gave up the lead and then passed two cars all in less than 2.5 miles) punctuated the driver’s tenacity.

If you like making predictions off destiny, this seems like Hamlin’s year more than any of the four. He enters with the least momentum of the championship contenders, but that also held true for teammate Kyle Busch last year and look what happened then.

And as the sole entrant left racing for the championship at Joe Gibbs Racing, the powerhouse organization has been laser-focused this week on streamlining Hamlin’s Camry for maximum speed.

It all adds up to a title long in the making, which would be fitting for what has seemed NASCAR’s longest year. 

Quotable: “I can’t think of a more favorable position to be in. There’s certainly no more pressure‑packed situation to be in than we were last year. For us making the Championship 4 is the goal. Winning the championship is gravy. Last year, when we were in a do‑or‑die situation, we were able to pull it off at that racetrack, at the track where the championship is decided this year. (That) is something that no other team can say.  We have won a clutch race at Phoenix.  I think that is a big deal for us.  Hopefully we can pull it off again.” – Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 11

– Nate Ryan

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great originations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”

NASCAR Awards: Scene on the red carpet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community gathered at the Music City Center to commemorate the 2022 season and celebrate Joey Logano‘s second Cup title.

The event can be seen at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Here is a look at the scene on the red carpet before Thursday night’s NASCAR Awards:

Joey Logano and Brittany Logano (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ryan Blaney and Gianna Tulio (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle and Samantha Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Elliott (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Alex Bowman and Crystal Marsh (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Tyler Reddick and Alexa De Leon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Denny Hamlin and Jordan Fish (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Daniel Suarez and Julia Piquet (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Briscoe and Marissa Briscoe (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Christopher Bell and Morgan Bell (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Dillon and Whitney Dillon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle Larson (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

William Byron and Erin Blaney (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kevin Harvick (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ross Chastain and Erika Turner (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Cindric (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kurt Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Harrison Burton and Jenna Petty(Photo: Dustin Long)
Mario Andretti (Photo: Dustin Long)