After 35 points-paying races and nine months of competition, four drivers enter the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship with a shot at the title. The group is evenly split between two teams that have been head and shoulders above the rest of the playoff competition: Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
In one of the more evenly matched quartets since this postseason format began in 2014, Kyle Larson enters as the favorite. He’s won nine races, putting him in position to become the first double-digit winner in Cup since Jimmie Johnson in 2007. Larson has been on fire throughout the postseason, capturing four victories while setting a NASCAR record for laps led during a 36-race season (2,474).
Larson’s a shoo-in for Comeback Driver of the Year across all of motorsports, bouncing back with Hendrick after being released by Chip Ganassi Racing in April 2020 for using a racial slur. But his track record at Phoenix is a bit of a concern heading in. Larson has never won here, leading just a single lap in the spring on route to a fifth-place finish.
That sounds fine until you consider his teammate, reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott, won this race last November. Elliott is seeking to become the first back-to-back champion since Johnson did it in 2006-10 and has a bit of momentum heading in, leading 321 laps total the last two weeks. However, the No. 9’s year at Hendrick has paled in comparison to Larson. Elliott hasn’t won on an oval, only earning victories at two new road courses, Circuit of the Americas and Road America out in Wisconsin.
Martin Truex Jr. leads the charge for Joe Gibbs Racing after a dramatic finish to Martinsville last week. Truex charged to fourth in the closing laps, somehow recovering after damage to his left front fender mixed in with a hit to the outside wall. A four-time winner this year, one of those came at Phoenix in the spring, giving hope the 2017 Cup champion can take his second within the last five years.
Finally, there’s Denny Hamlin, the 2019 fall Phoenix winner who enters this race with some controversy after interrupting Alex Bowman’s post-race burnout at Martinsville. Calling Bowman a “hack” (that’s the G-Rated version) after nudging him out of the way for that win, Hamlin was vocally defending himself on Twitter this week and is fired up about going for his first championship at age 40.
“I’m not going to change what I do or who I am,” Hamlin said. “I’m just going to have fun, enjoy it, go out there and win it.”
Hamlin has been looked at as the foil to Larson, winning twice during the playoffs after battling him for the regular-season points title. He’s been here before, 0-for-3 in previous Championship 4 appearances and losing out to Johnson after entering the finale with the point lead in 2010.
Almost certainly, your winner this weekend will come from one of those four. The Championship 4 went 1-2-3-4 at this track last November and the non-playoff drivers in Cup have a history of deferring to them in the finale. But Bowman’s Martinsville victory shows a breakthrough is possible. In particular, keep an eye on Kevin Harvick, the nine-time Phoenix winner looking to avoid his first winless season since jumping over to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Most of all, the sport hopes for a nice ending with its current car, ushered into retirement for the Next Gen chassis after the conclusion of this race. Can the 750-horsepower package deliver one final time in what’s been a competitive year in Cup?
NASCAR Cup Series Championship
Date: Sunday, Nov. 7
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Phoenix Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Alex Bowman
While Denny Hamlin was fuming, Bowman was smiling after earning his first grandfather clock in a stirring Martinsville victory. He now has four wins, more than anyone not named Larson or Truex in what’s been a career year for him at the No. 48.
Bowman, understanding why Hamlin was upset over the contact, is just trying his best to stay out of the limelight on championship week. But that doesn’t mean he’s apologetic over taking the victory.
“I don’t like drama,” Bowman said. “I’m pretty shy and keep to myself, do my own thing. This isn’t the most comfortable situation for me. At the same time, I’m paid to win races. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Who's at the Back: Ross Chastain
An early playoff sensation, nearly pulling off an upset in September’s Southern 500 at Darlington, some thought Chastain would win a race before the year is out despite just missing out on the title chase. That’s not happening. Instead, seven straight finishes outside the top 10, including a disappointing 27th at Martinsville, leave him 20th in the standings heading into the season finale.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps, in his annual state of the sport address Friday, denounced the "Let's Go Brandon" chant started at Talladega last month, a masked criticism of U.S. President Joe Biden. Phelps also pledged to go after anyone utilizing the NASCAR trademark to make "Let's Go Brandon" shirts. "We do not want to associate ourselves with politics, the left or the right," he said. "We obviously have, and we've always had as a sport tremendous respect for the office of the president no matter who is sitting."
Brad Keselowski has a new crew chief for the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in 2022. Matt McCall, currently the head wrench for the No. 1 of Chip Ganassi Racing, will move over to RFR once CGR merges with Trackhouse Racing Team in the offseason. McCall, a former driver, has three career Cup victories as a crew chief, taking Busch to the playoffs in each of his last three seasons at Ganassi.
Tyler Reddick's crew chief will miss the Phoenix season finale due to NASCAR's COVID-19 protocols. Andrew Dickeson, an engineer at Richard Childress Racing, will replace Randall Burnett atop the pit box.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Points position of Alex Bowman despite four wins on the year. That’s the lowest for any four-time winner since Matt Kenseth (five victories, 15th in points) back in 2015.
Average finish for Hamlin this season entering the finale. It edges out Larson’s 9.3 as best on the Cup circuit.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The Championship 4 (Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.) is honestly who you should be building your weekend lineup around in daily fantasy. Whoever you think is best positioned to win the title, racking up fastest lap bonuses in the process, will produce the highest score on the weekend. Fit a second one in if you can even if it means filling your roster with mediocre drivers on the back end. You’ll still cash in.
Kevin Harvick pops up here again, and this time for good reason: his nine career victories at Phoenix are a NASCAR best. Harvick has been off the mark here lately, but off the mark for him at this track are still seventh- and sixth-place runs the last two times out. Expect him to have another top-10 performance that could net you the points in daily fantasy to get over the finish line.
William Byron has never finished better than eighth at Phoenix, making him a cheap enough play where you might be able to squeeze him in on a roster loaded with two Championship 4 contenders. Do it. Since missing out on the title chase, eliminated in the Round of 12 he’s put together runs of second, sixth and fifth.
Matt DiBenedetto has one last chance to audition for 2022 in his ride with Wood Brothers Racing. Chances are, he’ll deliver with four straight top-15 results at this track dating back to his time with Leavine Family Racing and the No. 95 Toyota. Expect a poor qualifying effort, too, that could pay off with position differential bonuses.
Once upon a time, Daniel Suarez had some top-10 finishes at Phoenix, dating back to his time driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017-18. Take a chance at Suarez, a cheaper pick to help fill in the back end of a Championship 4-built roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson is +190 to win the Season Finale 500 according to the latest odds posted at vegasinsider.com. Chase Elliott is a distant second at +350, followed by Denny Hamlin (+400) and Martin Truex Jr. (+450).
If you really think a non-playoff driver can buck the trend, Brad Keselowski was fastest in practice Friday and sits as a +2500 longshot.
What I Think
I’m going to go with Martin Truex Jr. to take the title, persevering through a difficult weekend at Martinsville. The No. 19 Toyota has had the speed on 750-horsepower tracks this season and is flying under the radar, in good position to make it a Phoenix sweep.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.