Phoenix Championship Weekend Saturday Notebook

Veteran Denny Hamlin is at peace with solid 2023 season

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Perpetual NASCAR Cup Series championship favorite Denny Hamlin will not be among the four drivers competing for the 2023 title Sunday afternoon in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a mechanical failure in the previous round essentially doomed his hopes for a title.

But the three-time Daytona 500 winning veteran and outspoken competitor arrived in Phoenix feeling at least “at peace” with his situation although obviously disappointed. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won three races and is ranked fifth in the title standings – tops among those that didn’t qualify for the big trophy run.

The 42-year-old 18-year series veteran won three races, had 14 top-five finishes and 18 top-10 runs along with four pole positions – the most he’s earned in a decade. Only one driver – Kyle Larson – has led more laps this season than Hamlin’s 984. But a parts failure resulting in a 30th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago ultimately put him in a deficit that proved too much to overcome.

Last season he missed out on the Championship 4 because of the “Hail Melon” final lap move by Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain that propelled Chastain into the final foursome.

“I think it was kind of a microcosm of my whole career honestly,” Hamlin said of missing out on a championship chance this season. “I feel like every year there’s been some sort of kink in the Playoffs that has either kept us from moving on or kept us from winning a championship.

“I wish we didn’t have mechanical failures, I wish it weren’t part of our sport, I wish we all had the same equipment, and it was durable and nothing ever broke and if you ran bad, it was your fault. I wish that’s the sport we had, but it’s not. I had a crazy 00.1 percent chance of what happened happening (at Homestead), and it did. I can only control what I can control but to me, I don’t lose any motivation behind it because I’m still going to try to win every week, but there is a luck factor behind it.

“All of our teams had the same issue, but there’s didn’t do what mine did and so it’s crummy. I wish there was a larger sample size for sure, but there’s not and I’ve just got to live with it.”

As for the season, Hamlin said he’d give his team a B-plus.

“Certainly, we could have more race wins. Three race wins, I’ll certainly take that, but it’s probably not up to our standards.  .. it was stupid stuff that happens.

“If we get five-plus wins I put it at A-minus because we didn’t make the Final Four, but I feel very satisfied and content with the result of what we put on the race track and that’s why every single week we’re a contender you have to beat. We’re not hit or miss every now and then and disappear for 15 races and then all of a sudden come back. It was a steady season for us from beginning to end and I thought we put together a nice one.”

 

CHASE ELLIOTT LEARNED A LOT THIS YEAR

It was certainly not the “typical” season for longtime fan favorite and 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He missed seven races total – recovering from a broken leg and serving a one-race suspension – and was never able to make up enough points to qualify for the super-competitive 16-driver Playoff field.

That’s not to say the season wasn’t productive, however. He said the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team still learned a lot and remains perhaps more motivated than ever.

Despite missing the races, Elliott, 27, was still successful enough to climb to 17th in the season standings – the first position outside the 16-driver playoff field. His seven top-five finishes and 15 top-10 efforts are both more than three Playoff drivers who competed in every race. The 18-time winner would like to continue a five-year streak of winning at least one race a season.

“You’re always wanting to be better,” Elliott said of missing the first Playoff of his eight-year fulltime career in the series.

“I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the things I need to do better. I know I’ve learned a lot about myself and areas I want to improve in. Will try to tackle a lot of that this weekend, and get a head-start on things we want to improve o for next year. Hopefully tomorrow goes well and we can end it on a positive note.”

“It’s not where I want to be, so I’m not happy with it. I want to be better. I feel like I have a really, really strong team and guys working hard every week to give me the thigs I want and need and that’s all you can ask for. I just want to continue on that path and continue to work hard like we have been, and I think the hard work and resilience of not quitting and giving up will eventually get us where we need to go.”

 

ROSS CHASTAIN IS LOOKING AHEAD

A year ago this week, Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain was preparing to make his Championship 4 debut at Phoenix Raceway after a sensational headline-making rally the week before in the Martinsville, Va. cutoff race.

The 30-year-old comes to Phoenix Raceway this week, however, ranked ninth in the championship standings, 21 points behind eighth place Chris Buescher and 36 points behind Buescher’s Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing teammate Brad Keselowski. The driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet won at Nashville this summer, has nine top-five finishes and his 483 laps led on the year is seventh best among all drivers.

There is a decidedly different feel this championship week, but one that Chastain said has only motivated him more.

“I haven’t really looked back, just been week-to-week because there’s only one off-week all year,” Chastain said. “There’s definitely a lot of times as we’re preparing that I’ve flashed back and remember last year because last year was the first in a lot of firsts for me, lot of first time competing week in and week out, first time in Playoffs, first time with all those nerves and all those things. So, this year I was having some flashbacks, even this weekend I had flashbacks since I flew out here about what I went through last year and the difference is this year is really just observing, not getting too excited or too down, just observing what I did last year and what I did this year.”

 

THE FORCE IS WITH BUBBA WALLACE

Bubba Wallace is hoping to close out what he considers his most accomplished season with a victory on Sunday, and he expects to be a “force” to be reckoned with.

His No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota will have a Star Wars theme for this week’s season-ender and Wallace got to meet with Star Wars star Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the famed Star Wars series of movie blockbusters. While Wallace appreciated the opportunity, he also enjoyed it because his best friend, fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver and member of the weekend’s Championship 4 Ryan Blaney is a huge Star Wars fan.

“My boss is MJ, so. ..” a smiling Wallace said of team owner, NBA superstar Michael Jordan when he asked if he was starstruck meeting Hamill.

“When he [Hamill] did say, ‘May the force be with you always,’ now that was pretty cool. I’ve heard that line and everybody and his mother says it but when he does, that’s pretty special.”

Wallace is hopeful that the “force” may be with him for this weekend’s season finale as he is still racing for his first trophy of 2023 despite upping his game overall by qualifying for his first Playoff berth. He has nine top-10 finishes and tied his previous best mark of top-five showings with five. And he earned his second career pole position this Fall at Texas. He has only one top-10 (10th in 2018) in 11 Phoenix starts.

“Definitely being talked about more for our performances and race results, and not so much the negative headlines,” Wallace said of 2023. “That’s good so we just need to continue to build on that. I definitely learned a lot about who I am as a driver and just trying to be a better team leader and it’s starting to click more and more. Just got to get the wick lit earlier in the season and get on a hot streak and keep that flame going.”’’

 

ARIC ALMIROLA BIDS FAREWELL TO FULLTIME

Longtime NASCAR Cup Series competitor Aric Almirola will be making his final start this weekend as a fulltime competitor. The Tampa native formalized the news last weekend and said he may still make occasional starts in various series, but his primary focus now is being a dad and husband.

Almirola, 39, who has three career wins – at Daytona, Talladega, Ala. and New Hampshire – qualified for five Playoff runs highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the 2018 championship standings.

“I originally thought that I might be sad, but I’m not sad – I’m happy it happened,” Almirola said Saturday before qualifying. “When I flew on the plane for five hours, I was thinking and enjoying re-living the last six years at SHR [Stewart-Haas Racing] and 12 years being a fulltime Cup driver – all the ups and downs and everything in between.

“It’s been such a journey. And through that process of sitting and thinking about it all and knowing this will be the last one of doing it fulltime, I felt a sense of gratitude really, not sad at all. Just happy it happened.”

The Florida native said what he’ll take away from his career is less about the victories and more about the people he met. He’ll celebrate it all Saturday evening with dozens of friends and family in Phoenix to watch his final fulltime start.

“If I wouldn’t have made it in racing, I’d probably still be in Florida running my grandfather’s body shop and the people around me and the dynamic of what my family looks like would just be so different form today,” he said. “I wouldn’t have met my wife, wouldn’t have had my kids, wouldn’t have had the friendships and relationships I have because of God allowing me to become a race car driver so I feel incredibly grateful and an overwhelming sense of being blessed.

“The friendships, the relationships will last way past the driving.”

 

BRAD KESELOWSKI IS ON BABY DUTY

Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing owner/driver Brad Keselowski will miss Saturday’s pole qualifying session for the best of reasons. The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion returned to Charlotte to be with his wife Paige, who went into labor Saturday with their third child, and first son.

Cole Custer, who is competing for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, will qualify Keselowski’s No. 6 RFK Ford Mustang.

“The expectation is that Brad will return to Phoenix Sunday” to compete in the season-ender. He is currently seventh in the championship standings and racing for his first win of the year.

Keselowski actually tweeted a “thank you” to Custer from the hospital, “Just made it to the hospital. Appreciate the good news.”