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