MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Throughout a playoffs that saw former champions feud, tempers flare and a momentous victory, one thing remained constant.
The two best organizations were Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
It’s no surprise that it will be Hendrick vs. Gibbs in Sunday’s Cup championship race at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC).
Kyle Larson, who won a series-high nine races this year, and reigning series champ Chase Elliott represent Hendrick. Former champion Martin Truex Jr., who won at Phoenix earlier this season, and Denny Hamlin, who will make his third consecutive title race appearance, represents Gibbs.
“I think when you look at the four that are in it, I think it’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race,” Hamlin said after Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. “I think all of them would be deserving champions.”
Hendrick and Gibbs drivers combined to win eight of the nine playoff races. The exception was Bubba Wallace’s win at Talladega, making him only the second Black driver to win a Cup race. His 23XI Racing team is co-owned by Hamlin and gets its cars from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Six times in these playoffs, cars from Hendrick and Gibbs finished 1-2. Martinsville represented the third time in this postseason that Hendrick and Gibbs cars took four of the top five finishing positions.
What happened in the playoffs was a continuation of what fans saw during the season.
Hendrick drivers won 16 races, including five in the playoffs. Gibbs drivers won nine. The two teams combined to win 71.4% of the races this season.
That Larson and Hamlin are among the championship contenders is fitting. Larson won the most races (nine), won the most stages (17) and led the most laps this season (2,474). Hamlin ranked second in top fives (18), second in top 10s (24) and second in stage wins (10).
“I’ve said for many, many weeks now that it would be a disservice if someone other than the two of us didn’t win,” Hamlin said of either he or Larson winning the title. “I mean, he’s obviously probably the most deserving over the course of the year that he’s had from start to finish.”
Said Larson: “As Denny mentioned, the way we both performed throughout all the season, I’m glad to see us both with the opportunity to race for a championship, as well as Chase and everything he’s kind of had to go through throughout this playoffs.”
Reigning champ Chase Elliott made it back to the championship race, but what a journey it was the past nine weeks.
His feud with Kevin Harvick was a key storyline for part of the playoffs, erupting at Bristol in the final race of the opening round and continuing through the Charlotte Roval race at the end of the second round.
Elliott’s finishes at Bristol (25th) and the Roval (12th) were impacted by incidents with Harvick. Elliott’s playoffs began with a crash in the Southern 500 after he had a tire cut down after contact from Christopher Bell’s car. That resulted in a 31st-place finish.
Elliott’s average finish of 13.0 in the playoffs is the worst of the Championship 4 drivers. Hamlin had an average finish of 7.2 in these playoffs, Larson 8.1 and Truex 10.3.
“Certainly hasn’t been pretty,” Elliott said of his playoffs. “At the end of the day, having a shot (this) week is really all that matters.
“Frankly, I feel like you make it to Phoenix, it’s anybody’s game. Getting out there and being a part of the final four is a really big deal. It’s really hard to do. I’m really proud of my team for continuing to push through and battle some adversity. Just keep fighting.
“I got a great group. I don’t want to go to battle with anybody else. Really proud of my group for not only (Sunday) but just the whole run. Our guys are on Phoenix now. We can focus on going out there and putting together a solid race, which I know we’re very much capable of doing. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Kyle Busch fell three points short of advancing to the Championship 4. It marks the second year in a row he’s failed to advance to the title race.
“We ran like (expletive) last week and this week,” Busch said after Sunday’s race at Martinsville. “We had a Hail Mary opportunity there at the end, and we were trying to make something out of nothing.
“Great effort. We did everything we could all day long. We never stopped working on it.
“We have missed it way too much lately. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Busch has led 334 laps this season. The fewest laps he’s led in a Cup season is 362. That came in 2005, h is rookie season.
Alex Bowman’s victory Sunday gave him his fourth of the season.
Countering those wins are 11 finishes outside the top 20. Only once this season did he score more than three consecutive top 10s.
That inconsistency plagued the No. 48 team all year.
“I was confident coming into this year, but the thing that I’ve always circled is to just try to be consistent, consistently run well,” Bowman said. “We’ve struggled to do that.
“It’s really hard for me to be super excited right now. The beginning of the season, if you told me I was going to win four times, I’d be pretty excited. Wish we were going to Phoenix with a chance to win the championship.
“It has been painful to kind of go through the playoffs the way they’ve been, but it’s awesome to at least start to end the year on a strong note.”