Phoenix Raceway sets the stage for the NASCAR Cup Series season finale
The laps of tussle and suspense that finalized the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 drivers last week in the penultimate race of the season has ensured a high-octane excitement level for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and is sure to deliver a memorable end to the 2021 season.
“Certainly, I think when you look at the four [drivers] that are in it [Championship 4 Round], I think it’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race," Denny Hamlin acknowledged. “I think all of them would be deserving champions."
Reigning series champion Chase Elliott, 24, will try to become the first driver to earn back-to-back titles since his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson won five straight from 2006-2010.
His Hendrick teammate Kyle Larson, 29, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Regular Season Champion and series-best nine-race winner is looking to earn his first NASCAR title and cap a season for the record books in his Championship 4 debut.
They will face Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin, who challenged Larson for the regular season title all the way down to the wire. The 40-year-old veteran is looking for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship after three previous times in the Championship 4. His best previous championship run was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2010.
The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., 41, fills out the Championship foursome. This is his fifth appearance in the Championship 4 Round and should he win, Truex would become only the seventh driver in NASCAR history to hoist a championship trophy with two different teams. He won in 2017 with Furniture Row Racing.
The truth, however, is that these four drivers aren’t likely contemplating what legacies they can leave behind right now. They still have a race to win – or at least the challenge of bettering their three title challengers.
On the full 2021 season, Larson has unquestionably set the bar. Beyond the nine wins – double that of any other driver in the series - his 2,474 laps led is also twice that of any competitor. His 19 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes are a series-best too.
The big task for the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be earning that first career win at the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway. Larson’s led only 72 laps in 14 starts at Phoenix – the lowest laps led among the Championship 4 drivers. He has five top-five and eight top-10 finishes, including a best showing of runner-up in the 2017 Spring race. He was seventh at Phoenix this March and has finished at least seventh or better in his last five races there.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is second only to Larson in the most important season statistics, however, the veteran does boast the best Average Finish (8.6) in the series and also the best Average Finish (10.7) at Phoenix among the four championship-eligible drivers. His two wins at Phoenix are most among that of the Playoff foursome as well – as is his laps led (854) tally.
The defending series champion Elliott certainly proved himself up to the title task last year, winning by nearly 3-seconds over the other three 2020 title challengers, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Hamlin. And his crew chief Alan Gustafson is the only crew chief among the Championship 4 with a championship to his name already.
Elliott’s work in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at Phoenix has been top shelf. His 11.2 average finish is second only to Hamlin’s among the four title contenders. He has seven top-10 and four top-five finishes in 11 Phoenix starts and his 402 laps led there is also second to Hamlin among the Championship 4.
Truex comes in as the most recent Phoenix winner scoring a nearly 2-second win over Logano this March. It was a definite step-up at the track for the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. His 15.4 average finish at Phoenix in 31 starts is lowest among the Championship 4, and only 12th-best in the series.
He has only five career top-five finishes at the track, but has already proven himself in championship form in 2021 with four race wins – second only to Larson among the finalists. All four of those victories, actually, have come with the same 750-horsepower, low downforce package being used this weekend.
“We’ve had a great season – definitely some ups and downs – and I feel like we’ve fought for everything we’ve got this year," said Truex, whose five Championship 4 appearances ties him with JGR teammate Kyle Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick for most in the series.
“That’s just our team’s mentality to never give up and keep fighting. I think that definitely showed last weekend at Martinsville when we ran up front all day, then got knocked back late in the race and had to do everything we could to advance and we were able to do that.
“This weekend is something we’ve been working for this entire season and have really been excited for after how we ran in the Spring. We’re definitely looking forward to the opportunity and we’re ready to give it our best shot."
There are five drivers outside the Championship 4 mix with previous Phoenix victories, including Harvick, who has a track record nine wins. Kyle Busch has three. Logano and Ryan Newman each have two wins and Kurt Busch has one victory.
Important to note, all three NASCAR national series will have practice and qualifying sessions this week in advance of the championship races.
Xfinity Series Championship 4 to battle it out in cactus country
In one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric, Daniel Hemric and A.J. Allmendinger have earned the right to compete for the 2021 Xfinity Series title in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet pulled off a dramatic victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last week to earn his first ever shot at the series title.
He’ll contend with a pair of five-race winners in reigning series champion, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric and this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Regular Season Champion, Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger. The steady and impressive Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Hemric rounds out the quartet. Only Cindric and Hemric have raced in the finale for the title previously.
With his win, Gragson is the only fulltime series driver to hoist a trophy in the most recent three-race Playoff round. In fact, only two of the six Playoff races – Allmendinger won at the Charlotte ROVAL – have been won by championship-eligible drivers.
Because of that win in the Round of 8, Gragson is listed as the top-seed for the Championship Race. He has 20 top-10 finishes and three wins on the year. His Playoffs have tended to be “all or nothing” with four top-10 finishes and a pair of Did Not Finish (DNFs). He’s solid at Phoenix with three top-10 finishes in five starts. He was runner-up to Cindric in last year’s Championship Race and has finished 11th or better in his last four starts there.
When it comes to Phoenix, however, Cindric has been the master of this class. He is the defending championship race winner and won again this Spring. He has six top-10 and four top-five finishes in seven starts and is 261 laps out front are most among the title-seekers. And his 5.9 average finish in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford at Phoenix is by far the best among these four contenders.
He’s earned five wins on the year – tying Allmendinger for most. His 21 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes and average finish of 8.4 through 32 races are high marks for the series this season. He hasn’t won since the Indianapolis Road Course back on Aug.14, but is the only one of these championship eligible drivers to earn top-10 finishes in all six Playoff races. Three times – at the ROVAL, Kansas and Martinsville – he’s finished runner-up.
Hemric's consistency posting five top-five finishes in the six Playoff races has earned him his third appearance in the Championship 4. Still looking for his first career victory in one of NASCAR’s national series, he has been impressive this year, especially during the Playoff run with a runner-up showing at Texas and third place efforts at the ROVAL and last Saturday at Martinsville.
The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has four top-10 finishes at Phoenix with a best showing of runner-up there in 2018. He hasn’t finished in the top-20 in his last three Phoenix starts, however, he did lead 44 laps there in a 23rd-place finish this Spring.
After a celebrated maiden full-season run in the Xfinity Series, Allmendinger, 39, is ready to top off the work with a championship trophy. He’s won five races and amassed 22 top-10 finishes with a Playoff win at the Charlotte Road Course. His only Phoenix start since 2008 in the Xfinity Series was this March and he finished fifth. In 19 NASCAR Cup Series starts, his best finish was sixth-place.
Among those drivers eliminated from Championship contention was two-time Phoenix winner Justin Allgaier, who still goes into the race a favorite. He has led at least 30 laps in eight of the last 10 Phoenix races with 14 top-10 and eight top-five finishes in his 22 series starts. His 8.6 Average Finish at Phoenix is second only to Cindric.
Camping World Trucks to settle 2021 championship in the desert
In was a fitting set-up for Friday night’s season championship Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship race.
Restarts, lead changes and hot tempers characterized last week’s race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway to set the Championship 4 for this weekend. And 22-year-old Zane Smith earned his only win of the season – the most clutch victory of his young career - to advance to the title round.
Regular Season Champion John Hunter Nemechek, Ben Rhodes and three-time series champion Matt Crafton have also earned the right to vie for the season trophy at the 1-mile track in the Arizona desert.
This will be the first time with a championship shot for Nemechek and Rhodes. This is Smith's second appearance consecutive appearance in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs Championship 4 Round and veteran Matt Crafton's series leading fourth final round appearance (2016, '17, '19, '21).
The points have all re-set for the four title-eligible drivers and whoever finishes best among them will hoist the big trophy.
As the only championship-eligible driver to win in this last round of the Playoffs – Smith actually assumes the No. 1 seed. He pulled the ultimate long shot off over the weekend. He went into the Martinsville race, ranked last among the Playoff eligible, 40 points behind the cutoff and then won the race.
And Smith brings that momentum to a track, he’s had some success. The driver of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet boasts the top Average Finish (2.0) at Phoenix, finishing runner-up to 2020 series champ Sheldon Creed in last year’s title race. It is his only series start at Phoenix, but he led 48 laps, which ties Rhodes for most laps led there among the Championship 4. Rhodes has raced there six times, however, compared to Smith’s one.
In comparison to the Championship 4, Smith has the worst average finish (13.5) on the season, however, his 13 top-10 finishes are more than Crafton’s (12) and close to Nemechek’s and Rhodes’, who lead the series with 15 top-10s each. Smith is the only one among the four to win in the 2021 Playoffs.
Rhodes, who won the opening two races at Daytona this year, has the best season Average Finish (9.6) among the four title contenders. In addition to his two victories, he has three runner-up finishes. He had four top-10 finishes in the six Playoff races, including a best of second place at Las Vegas.
This is the first time Rhodes has earned a position in the Championship 4. In six starts at Phoenix, the driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota has a pair of top-five finishes and three top-10 runs. His best work is fourth place in 2019.
“We’re here for Phoenix and now this is my first time in the Final Four and I have a really good team behind me with ThorSport Racing and just really, really proud of their efforts all year," Rhodes said after securing a position in the Championship last week.
“It comes down to one race now and I know we can do it."
The only former champion among the four who will race for the title this weekend is 45-year-old Matt Crafton. He boasts the most top-10 Playoff race finishes (five) among the foursome. His best showings were runner-up at Gateway and fifth at Martinsville.
Though Phoenix has not necessarily been a highlight on his resume. He has 12 top-10 finishes and six top-five finishes in 20 starts there, but has led only 16 laps total. His best work is a runner-up finish in 2014. The driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota had three top 10s and two DNFs in the last six Phoenix races. He was 14th in last year’s season finale.
Nemechek, 24, driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, has been the championship front-runner all season earning a career-high and series-best five victories, but after being wrecked out of the race at Martinsville – after highly-questionable contact by another non-Playoff truck – Nemechek suddenly found himself advancing to the Championship 4 Round by the slimmest of point margins.
His last win was nine races ago – this summer at Pocono, Pa. – and he has three top-five finishes in the Playoffs, including a runner-up effort at Darlington, S.C. But he also has three finishes of 20th or worse, including that 39th-place finish Saturday at Martinsville.
He has four top-10 finishes in seven Phoenix starts and finished runner-up twice – in 2015 and 2017. He had DNFs, however, in his last two starts there - in 2018 and 2019. His Average Finish (13.7) at Phoenix is worst among the four.
Among those not competing for the Championship, Sheldon Creed, who came so close to being able to advance to the final round and defend his series title, is the defending Phoenix winner. Stewart Friesen, who also was eliminated from title contention at Martinsville, won at Phoenix in 2019. Brett Moffitt (2018) and Johnny Sauter (2017) also have Phoenix trophies.