Elliott appears the obvious favorite if only season-long statistics are considered. But the Next Gen car imposed a steep learning curve on the 2022 season. Some drivers started out strong. Others played catch-up.
I separated regular-season and playoff numbers to highlight how teams have managed that learning curve. In both categories, I include absolute numbers plus the driver’s rank compared to other full-time drivers.
Green indicates a driver ranking in the top five in a metric. Metrics where the driver ranks between six and 10 are shaded yellow. The rare slice of red signifies a ranking outside the top 10.
Logano’s fifth career appearance in the Cup Series Championship 4 makes him the most experienced driver in the group. At 32 years old, he’s also the senior driver.
Logano is one of the more consistent drivers this season. He ranked in the top 10 in points for most of the regular season and stayed in the top five during the playoffs. His finishes improved or stayed the same from the regular season to the playoffs.
Logano’s loop-data stats show a similar trend: mostly consistency or improvement across the board.
The table above shows how competition strengthened as the season went on. For example, Logano improved his average running position, but his rank went down because a lot of other drivers improved, too.
Logano finished eighth at Phoenix in the spring. He led four laps, although three were under the yellow flag. But given how much teams have learned about the Next Gen car since that first visit, I hesitate to weight it, or previous years’ trips to Phoenix, very heavily.
I put more emphasis on Logano’s leading 55.5% of the laps at the Fall Richmond race, where he finished sixth. Richmond is a good comparison track for Phoenix.
The No. 22 team doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. During the regular season, the only penalties they incurred were being sent to the back three times. They needed a backup car twice and made unapproved adjustments once.
The team incurred only one penalty during the playoffs. Remember that I don’t count ‘pitting before pit road is open’ as a penalty because teams usually do it intentionally.
Logano ties for 18th place when it comes to caution-causing accidents, spins and stalls with 10 incidents during the regular season and one in the postseason. For comparison, Ross Chastain leads that category with 17 for the season.
Logano has led a consistently strong campaign for the championship. His challenge is that a championship decided by a single race values excellence — and luck — over consistency.
Chase Elliott, who will turn 27 later this month, has packed a lot into his seven full-time Cup Series seasons. His list of achievements includes winning the championship two years ago.
Elliott dominated the regular season this year, winning the points race and earning the most wins. The playoff points he earned during the regular season were critical, as his playoff performance hasn’t reached the bar he set during the regular season.
Elliott’s win percentage didn’t change much in the playoffs. But with a 65.4% top-10 rate in the regular season, he should have five to six top-10 playoff finishes instead of the three he earned. That’s one reason he comes into the final race of the season ranked fourth of four.
Elliott led almost all metrics in the regular season except for starting position. (Teammate Larson took that prize). But Elliott’s rankings fell in the playoffs in every metric except for laps led. He led laps at 15 of 26 races in the regular season (57.7%) and four of the nine playoff races (44.4%).
Elliott led 50 laps at Phoenix in the spring on his way to an 11th-place finish. He had a fifth-place finish at Richmond in the fall and a second-place finish at New Hampshire. Both are good comparison tracks for Phoenix.
Elliott had only two DNFs (7.7%) in the regular season. But he also had two DNFs in nine playoff races (22.2%).
The No. 9 team is a crack organization. They incurred only five penalties in the regular season: Three committed by Elliott on pit road, one by the pit crew and they were sent to the back once for needing a backup car. They incurred no penalties in the playoffs.
Elliott was involved in 12 caution-causing incidents in the regular season (nine accidents and three spins) and two in the playoffs. That puts him in ninth place relative to other full-time drivers.
Elliott is a perennial fan favorite. He has the tools he needs to win, but he needs to bring them all to bear in Phoenix. Even just a bit of bad luck could sink his hopes for a second title.
The Crew Chiefs
Like their drivers, Alan Gustafson (Elliott) and Paul Wolfe (Logano) are series champions. Gustafson won with Elliott in 2020. Wolfe earned his championship with Brad Keselowski in 2012. Both vie for the chance to join Adam Stevens as only the second active crew chief with multiple title wins.
Their experience will be important when quick decisions must be made. When everything is on the line, those snap decisions could make the difference between winning a championship and spending the offseason thinking about what might have been.