Championship contenders Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell both powered their way into the Championship 4. Bell took the checkered flag in two win-or-be-eliminated races, and Chastain made an odds-defying video-game move at Martinsville.
But how will they do at Phoenix?
As I did for Joey Logano and Chase Elliott, I separate regular-season and playoff statistics. I include absolute numbers as well as the driver’s rank compared to other full-time drivers.
Green boxes indicate a driver ranking in the top five in a metric, while metrics where the driver ranks between six and 10 are shaded yellow. Anything out of the top-10 is red.
Chastain’s aggressive driving made headlines, as well as a few enemies, during the season. He lowered his profile over the summer before riding the wall into the Championship 4 at Martinsville. He enters Phoenix with 150 Cup Series starts, which is the second-smallest number of starts a driver has had entering the championship race.
Chastain’s performance this year is uniformly uneven. For example: He celebrated his first two career wins at COTA and Talladega, but is the only driver in the Championship 4 not to have won a playoff race.
His string of four top-five finishes near the start of the season gave way to seven finishes of 15th or worse heading into the playoffs. But his last three finishes are two seconds and a fourth.
Chastain’s loop data stats are similarly inconsistent. Although he’s improved from the regular season to the playoffs in some areas, he’s moved down in others.
In the playoffs, Chastain leads the Championship 4 drivers in finishing position and running position; however, he’s last in green-flag speed and restart speed.
The restart speed stat is worrisome because the fall Phoenix race has an average of 3.8 cautions in the last stage since 2017. Chastain ranks 3.3 positions worse in restart speed then the lowest of the other three drivers.
Chastain has the second-most penalties of the championship contenders with eight. His 30-second penalty at the Indy G.P. for shortcutting the track is a good reminder that not all of Chastain’s choices work out as well as at Martinsville.
The most concerning aspect of Chastain’s stats is the amount of on-track contact. His 15 accidents and two spins tie Kyle Busch for the most caution-causing incidents this season. Additionally, he’s been involved in a half-dozen more incidents that didn’t cause cautions but did hamper his track position.
Compounding that concern is the number of drivers holding grudges against Chastain. Even if all they do is race him extra hard, that’s one more challenge in an already tough battle.
Chastain finished second at Phoenix in the spring. Chastain has never won at Phoenix, but none of the Championship 4 drivers has ever won at Phoenix in the Next Gen car, either.
Because this is only Bell’s third full-time Cup Series season, I had assumed he was the youngest of the four competitors. He’s actually almost a year older than Chase Elliott, who is the youngest of the Championship 4.
Bell required only 107 Cup Series starts to reach the Championship 4, which breaks Elliott’s record of 184 starts. Chastain making it in on only 150 starts pushes Elliott to third place.
Bell is one of the drivers who grew into the Next Gen car. He started the season with two DNFs, a 10th-place finish at Las Vegas, and then two more finishes of 23rd and worse. That forced him to spend the first half of the season climbing out of the resulting points hole.
Bell won his sole regular-season race at New Hampshire in mid-July. That’s a positive for his championship performance because New Hampshire is a good comparison track for Phoenix.
Only six other times has a driver avoided playoff elimination by winning. Bell is the only driver to do it twice in a single season. Escaping such holes is impressive, but not getting into them is better.
Bell has six DNFS, with two in the last nine races. That’s fewer than the season record of nine, but the most of all Championship 4 drivers. He also has the most penalties (12) of the four drivers competing for the championship.
Bell’s loop data averages show clear improvement in absolute numbers and rank. In the playoffs, Bell makes the top five in every metric shown except for running position. There, he ranks sixth.
Bell led more laps in the nine playoff races than he led in the 26 regular-season races. But he comes in second overall for laps led in the playoffs to Kyle Larson, who led 328.
The Crew Chiefs
If Christopher Bell wins at Phoenix, Adam Stevens will become the only active three-time Cup Series champion crew chief and only the fifth crew chief to win titles with multiple drivers.
Phil Surgen is wrapping up his second full-time year as a Cup crew chief. Seventy-one of his 88 total starts have been with Ross Chastain. If the No. 1 car wins, Surgen will become the 45th different championship-winning crew chief in the series.