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.

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.