Championship 4 'the same but different' for the four contenders

John Harrelson / Motorsport Images

Championship 4 'the same but different' for the four contenders

NASCAR

Championship 4 'the same but different' for the four contenders

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NASCAR has felt old school to Brad Keselowski all year.

With the elimination of practice and qualifying due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Team Penske driver was reminded of what it’s like to show up at a local short track around lunchtime. There is a heat race, then the feature, and everyone is home by the morning’s early hours.

Cup Series teams have been doing that since May, and everyone has adapted quite nicely. But now, they must do that one more time for the biggest race of the year: the championship. No dialing in the car all weekend; no qualifying to try and fire the first shot toward your three fellow title contenders.

There is no build-up to the green flag like there would be in any other year. No weekend full of stress and nerves going from one activity to another. No cameras following your every move for three straight days and a sea of people surrounding the car, the hauler, and the pit box, or milling around in the garage.

“I’m kind of looking forward to it,” said Keselowski. “We’ve been so good with it the rest of the season that it’s become the new normal, and I’m cool with that. I’m just ready to go.”

Keselowski is making his second appearance in the Championship 4, so he’s gone through the stress and excitement of Championship Weekend in a typical year. But Keselowski’s championship from 2012 came under a previous playoff format.

“It’s never, in my years of Cup, been anything like (this),” Keselowski said. “In a lot of ways, it’s refreshing because not just the (extra) family time, but because you don’t have three days of sweating over every little detail of, ‘All right, I need three hours to prepare for qualifying, and after that, I need an hour of studying. Then I’ve got to go wake up at seven in the morning and have an eight a.m. practice session, and the track is nowhere near the right condition. Do we want to change the car setup? I don’t know, I don’t know, so‑and‑so is faster than us, yeah, but the track is not right…’

“All these mindless debates that you would have had are kind of gone with this setting. I don’t know if there was a lot of value in those that really communicated themselves to our fans or communicated themselves to our fan base to where they generated some excitement out of it, but they’re certainly gone. It’s a little bit different. I’m not complaining; I’m glad we get to race.”

Joey Logano has the most experience of the four title contenders. He is making his fourth appearance and is the only driver in contention who has won a championship under this format. To his credit, Logano has never been rattled by the significance of the moment, the competition, nor, notably in 2018 when he won the championship, fear of those who claimed Logano wouldn’t win the war.

“Yeah, the practice was always nice because you got out there, you got to tune in on or your car, you made a couple long runs, kind of got to know what you’re going to have for the race,” said Logano. “You could really build your strategy on what you have for the race, right? If you know you’re a fifth-place car, you can build your strategy around that. If you’re the fastest car out there, you know you have that (and) that will change your strategy.

“Now we don’t know until the race starts. We’ve been racing that way since we got back. Makes it a little different when you go to the championship round. How are you going to be? I don’t know. I know every single time we get to the final race of the year, the Championship 4, the fastest four cars, I’m almost certain one of them is going to win. I know it’s a different track. Every single time you have to win to win the championship (and) I don’t see that being different on Sunday.

“Like I said, different racetracks, a lot of different things can play out. Strategy can be different – just everything that Phoenix brings. It can be different, but I can promise you all four of us are going to be pretty good and probably have to be around each other quite a bit during the race.”

Logano (No. 22) has been here before; Elliott (No. 9) is a Championship first-timer. But without practice or qualifying, the playing field is even. Image by Harrelson/Motorsport Images

Chase Elliott is the only driver who doesn’t know what to expect as he makes his first title race appearance. Elliott failed to make it past the Round of 8 the last three seasons. The Hendrick Motorsports driver isn’t sure if just showing up to the race and not having to go through a traditional championship weekend is an advantage or disadvantage.

“It certainly takes a bunch of – I don’t want to say complications out of it, but I guess just that time on track,” said Elliott. “It takes a lot of pieces away from the puzzle. I don’t know that it’s good or bad. If you start the race on Sunday and your car’s off, ‘Dang, I wish we had some practice. I wish we could have fixed this on Friday or Saturday.’ If you start the race on Sunday, your car is driving good, then no, you’re probably happy with not having any.

“I think it comes down to whether or not you hit your balance close to the race. If you do, you’re happy about it. If you don’t, you wish you had some more time. Everybody is faced with the same rules and the same weekend schedule. We all kind of have the same opportunity, in my opinion. Kind of all depends on how you start the race.”

Denny Hamlin astutely described the state of Sunday’s finale as “just different.” Hamlin went through the experience for the first time when it was new to everyone during its 2014 debut and made a return to the Championship 4 last season knowing what to expect and how to navigate the weekend.

Hamlin doesn’t know “whether I like it better or worse, but certainly, to me, there’s less pressure because you’re not around all these people all the time asking you questions or saying good luck or whatever” this time around. Drivers have not traveled with an entourage all year because of COVID-19 restrictions. However, NASCAR is allowing championship contenders to have a limited number of guests attend the championship race. And should that driver prevail in winning the title, those guests will be permitted to join them in the infield.

Hamlin will surround himself with family and friends and enjoy the weather and the weekend before racing. He said he’s going to relax and will have a great weekend, no matter what happens.

“I think that it certainly is different being able to just show up and race,” said Hamlin. “Now, things are different because you’ve got a few more media hits before the race starts where typical on race day this year it’s been just show up and get in the car and go. But, yeah, we’ll still have that weird feeling of, ‘Is this really the big moment or not?’”

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