Breaking down the Championship 4 Cup drivers

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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.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.