The NASCAR Cup Series championship comes down to a heavyweight title fight between the two organizations that made the most noise this season: the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets and the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.
It’s absolutely no surprise that the Championship 4 contenders wound up splitting down the middle with two from each side. Each organization won with all of their drivers this season and combined to win 25 of 35 races. That includes winning eight of the nine playoff races (Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing being the outlier at Talladega Superspeedway).
“I think the four most deserving teams are probably in the final four,” said Hendrick driver Kyle Larson.
The statistics back that up. The four drivers left standing lead the series in laps led, and have been among the most consistent when it comes to top-10 finishes.
Larson won the regular-season championship and led the series with nine wins. His teammate, Chase Elliott, is the reigning series champion with two wins on road courses. Elliott finished third in the regular-season standings.
Larson locked in his Championship 4 spot by sweeping the first two races in the Round of 8. Elliott led a race-high 289 of 501 laps and swept the first two stages of Sunday’s elimination race at Martinsville Speedway to clinch his place before the checkered flag.
Denny Hamlin was second in the regular-season standings after setting an early torrid pace through incredible consistency. Then came Larson’s equally impressive winning streak to snatch the regular-season title in the final few weeks. Hamlin then won two of the first four playoff races.
Martin Truex Jr. scratched and clawed his way to the final Championship 4 spot. Truex has four wins on the season, including at Phoenix Raceway, where the title is decided. He was seventh at the end of the regular season.
“Frankly, I feel like you make it to Phoenix it’s anybody’s game,” said Elliott. “Getting out there and being a part of the final four is a really big deal. It’s really hard to do.”
It comes down to 312 laps in the Arizona desert. Phoenix Raceway hosts the finale for the second consecutive year. But this time, the host track will not have to operate under strict COVID-19 protocols, which translates to sold-out grandstands, hospitality suites, and fully booked hillside and infield access.
Hendrick Motorsports is going for its second consecutive Cup Series championship and 14th overall. One of its contenders, Larson, is seeking his first-ever NASCAR championship. The organization rides a four-race winning streak into Phoenix, and its 16 wins on the year make it the second-best single-season win total in Hendrick history — 18 wins in 1998 is the most.
Joe Gibbs Racing, winners of nine races, also wants one of its drivers to win his first championship. Hamlin is in the championship race for the fifth time, but the big prize has been a big challenge for him to capture. Truex scorched the series by showing everyone how to stage race in its first season and with overall victories on his way to winning his first title in 2017, but that was with a Gibbs alliance partner in the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.
Pick your heavyweight fighter. Hendrick vs. Gibbs. Chevy vs. Toyota. Hall of Fame team owner vs. Hall of Fame team owner. Youth (the Hendrick drivers) vs. experience (the Gibbs drivers).
“It’s interesting; usually, a lot of times, I feel like JGR might be the favorite going into a championship race, and I think we’re definitely the underdogs,” said Wally Brown, competition director for Joe Gibbs Racing. “We have to beat the guy … Kyle Larson has been so dominant and won so many races this year. Then you have Chase, the reigning champion at this track. We’re definitely the underdogs.
“From our perspective, we just don’t have the raw speed they’ve had this year, to be honest. We’re trying to figure that out, and they’ve just beaten us, just (are) faster everywhere. We’re going to have to do our best job and run a very clean race, have good pit stops, execute well, and hopefully, we can run with them.”
Jeff Andrews, who serves in the same role at Hendrick Motorsports, respects his counterpart. Andrews also respects Joe Gibbs Racing and what they’ve accomplished but disagrees with Brown’s sentiment about where the championship advantage swings.
“Statistically, you could make that argument,” said Andrews. “But for ourselves and how we’re approaching it, we’re going out there to race with Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the best teams in the history of this sport and certainly two drivers and race teams and crew chiefs that we compete against today. Our approach is not having the advantage. Our approach is to go into Phoenix and keep our focus on being better than we were in Martinsville and being better than we were on our last (one) mile track, and focus on our race teams and our pit stops, and just making sure we go in and execute and check all the boxes on our end that we’re supposed to do.
“So many times we’ve witnessed — and through championship races — that you get there and you have the performance, or you’ve had a dominant year, but when it’s time to put everything on the line, there is some detail that was missed in some part of the day. This week, we’re going to really take our time and make sure that we’ve got all those boxes checked.”
It will be one practice session at a time, best foot forward in qualifying on Saturday, and then put it all on the line Sunday afternoon. Elliott, Hamlin, and Truex are all past winners at Phoenix, with a combined four wins and 1,443 laps led.
Larson has never won at Phoenix, with his best finish being a runner-up effort in the spring of 2017. He’s led 72 laps at the track.
But handicap the drivers at your own risk. Declare favorites with some hesitancy and understanding that a winner-take-all championship event is its own animal.
The only thing to say for sure is that there is nothing like championship season, and once again, it’s the best of the best in the main event.
“You come down to Martinsville, you know it’s going to be a nail-biter, which it was,” said Truex. “Next week, it’s an honor and pleasure to get to race for championship. Only four of us get to do it. It’s a fun week. It’s definitely a lot less pressure than trying to go from eight to four.”