Breaking down the Championship 4 Cup drivers


Kyle Larson looks to put an exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history.

Chase Elliott looks to successfully defend his NASCAR Cup Series championship (although he himself wouldn’t term it that way).

Denny Hamlin looks to capture stock car racing’s biggest prize after 16 seasons.

Martin Truex Jr. looks to claim a second Cup title – this time, for one of the sport’s elite teams.

One of them will reach their goal in Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium).

The highest finisher among the Championship 4 wins it all. Since the Cup Series adopted its current playoff format in 2014, the champion has won the season finale each year.

How do the four title contenders shape up entering Sunday?

Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

  • Age 29 from Elk Grove, California
  • First Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Cup points finish: Sixth in 2019
  • This season: Leads Cup Series in multiple categories, including race wins (nine), stage wins (17), top-five finishes (19), top-10 finishes (25) and laps led (2,474)
  • Cup career at Phoenix: Winless in 14 starts (best finish – second, March 2017), average finish of 11.6

Five of Larson’s nine wins this season have come with the 750-horsepower rules package that’s being used Sunday.

Additionally, his No. 5 pit crew remains tops this season and in the playoffs on average times for four-tire stops. Per Racing Insights, the No. 5 team’s average time this season on those stops is 13.64 seconds. That time has dropped to 13.37 seconds (tied with Chase Elliott’s No. 9 pit crew) in the playoffs.

However, the No. 5 team can’t afford mistakes like the ones they had at Phoenix in March.

Larson’s car failed pre-race inspection twice, sending him to the rear for the start. Then in the race, Larson drew two pit road speeding penalties that forced him twice to rally back to the front. He ultimately finished seventh after late-race handling woes caused him to fade.

Should inspection issues arise again, Larson can recover with a fast car – but an ill-timed penalty in the pits can doom him.

Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

  • Age 25 from Dawsonville, Georgia
  • Second Championship 4 appearance
  • Reigning Cup Series champion
  • This season: Two race wins, six stage wins, 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 858 laps led
  • Cup career at Phoenix: One win (2020 championship race) in 11 starts, average finish of 11.2

In hindsight, Elliott’s breakthrough win at Martinsville to reach last year’s Championship 4 seemed to be the final obstacle he had to get past before becoming the sport’s standard-bearer.

The following week at Phoenix, he started at the rear after his car failed inspection twice but still led 153 of 312 laps on his way to a title-clinching victory.

Last year taught him to embrace those big moments and all the pressure that goes with them. His mindset – ready for anything – is the biggest thing in his favor.

He also has crew chief Alan Gustafson in his corner. Gustafson has four Phoenix wins under his belt, including last year’s finale win. The other three Championship 4 crew chiefs – Cliff Daniels (Larson), Chris Gabehart (Hamlin) and James Small (Truex Jr.) – have a combined two Phoenix wins.

But, like Hamlin and Truex, Elliott must overcome the aura of dominance that Larson and the No. 5 team has created for much of the season. Out of Larson’s nine wins, Elliott finished second four times.

Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

  • Age 40 from Chesterfield, Virginia
  • Fourth Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Cup points finish: Second in 2010
  • This season: Two race wins, 10 stage wins, 18 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes, 1,502 laps led
  • Cup career at Phoenix: Two wins in 32 starts (March 2012, 2019 playoffs), average finish of 10.8

After a winless regular season, Hamlin finally converted his performance into wins to push him through the first two rounds and then maintained enough consistency to reach the Championship 4 on points.

For the fourth time in the current playoff format, Hamlin will have an opportunity to win the title. It’s the last box to check in a stellar career that includes 46 Cup wins – three of them in the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.

But following his post-race controversies with non-playoff driver Alex Bowman last week at Martinsville, Hamlin must focus on the bigger picture during Sunday’s finale.

With a 39-car field, there may be times where Hamlin is in a dicey spot among non-playoff drivers racing for trophies and/or jobs for next season. If a clash ensues, Hamlin has to drop it – immediately – and carry on.

Meanwhile, he and his No. 11 team must avoid faltering in the title race for a third consecutive year.

In 2019 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the team put too much tape on the front grille of Hamlin’s car during a late green-flag stop. Subsequent overheating forced him to pit again and relegated him to a 10th-place finish.

Last year at Phoenix, his car struggled on overall speed against the other three title contenders (Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano). He finished fourth behind them and failed to lead a single lap.

Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

  • Age 41 from Mayetta, New Jersey
  • Fifth Championship 4 appearance
  • 2017 Cup Series champion
  • This season: Four race wins, five stage wins, 12 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, 793 laps led
  • Cup career at Phoenix: One win (March 2021) in 31 starts, average finish of 15.4

During these playoffs, Truex has not particularly stood out. While he earned an opening-round win in September at Richmond Raceway, he has only led 99 laps in the postseason. In comparison, Larson has led 908 laps; Hamlin has led 681; and Elliott has led 521.

All four of Truex’s victories this season have come with the 750-horsepower package in play Sunday, including his triumph at Phoenix in March, which saw him end a 29-race winless streak.

Truex’s last seven Cup wins have come on tracks using the 750 package. That run includes a September 2019 win at Richmond, plus two wins at Martinsville (Oct. 2019, June 2020).

With that in mind, an argument can be made for Truex being a sleeper to win Sunday. One could also argue he’s got the least pressure of all the Championship 4.

Larson is the dominant driver in 2021, but he’s never been in a situation like this. Elliott wants to keep his crown. And Hamlin desperately wants to finally take it himself.

For Truex and the No. 19 team, being a loose bunch Sunday might be an advantage.

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, on Wednesday. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Championship Weekend returns to Phoenix in 2024


Phoenix Raceway will host the championship races for the Cup, Xfinity, Craftsman Truck and ARCA Menards Series in 2024, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

The races will be held Nov. 1-3, 2024. The Cup season finale will be Nov. 3, 2024. The only other Cup race for 2024 that has been announced is the Daytona 500. It will be held Feb. 18, 2024.

Phoenix Raceway has hosted the championship finale for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks since 2020. Chase Elliott won the Cup title there in 2020. Kyle Larson followed in 2021. Joey Logano won the crown there in 2022.

This year’s Cup finale at Phoenix will be Nov. 5 and air on NBC.



Drivers to watch at World Wide Technology Raceway


After the fireworks from the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR heads to World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile speedway just outside of St. Louis. Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the second time the Cup Series has raced at this track.

Much is at stake. The race to win the regular season championship has intensified. Tempers are high. The pressure to make the playoffs builds. Ten drivers have wins this season. Twelve races remain in the regular season.


Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 11th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Richmond, Martinsville)
  • Past at WWTR: 12th last year

While a driver coming off back-to-back finishes of 20th or worse might not seem like a frontrunner, it actually does make Larson one. His topsy-turvy season has seen him place outside the top 10 in back-to-back races four times. In the three previous times he had consecutive finishes outside the top 10, he came back to finish second, first and second. Can he keep that streak going this weekend?

Bubba Wallace

  • Points position: 15th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Las Vegas I, Kansas I, Coca-Cola 600)
  • Past at WWTR: 26th last year

Wallace has scored three consecutive top-five finishes, his best streak in his Cup career. He has climbed from 21st to 15th in the standings during this run.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Darlington I)
  • Past at WWTR: 19th last year

Byron has finished no worse than seventh in the last five races. He’s led nearly 20% of the laps run during that time. Byron has averaged nearly 47 points a race during that streak.


Corey LaJoie

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Atlanta I)
  • Past at WWTR: 36th last season

NASCAR’s one-race suspension to Chase Elliott gives LaJoie the chance to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car for the first time. This will be the best car LaJoie has driven in his career. Many eyes will be on him to see how he does.

Ross Chastain

Chastain has finished 29th and 22nd in the last two points races. He’s not gone more than three races without a top-10 finish this season. After his struggles last weekend at Charlotte, Chastain saw his lead cut to one point over Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney in the standings. Five drivers are within 17 points of Chastain in the season standings.

Aric Almirola

  • Points position: 26th
  • Best finish this season: 6th (Martinsville I)
  • Past at WWTR: 5th last year

Almirola has finished 13th or worse in all but one race this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the five races since placing sixth at Martinsville, Almirola has finished an average of 21.0.