NASCAR's 2020 season concludes out in the Phoenix desert
One of the most unique seasons in NASCAR history concludes on Sunday with the running of the 2020 Season Finale 500. After a two-month COVID suspension, countless races rescheduled, and a flurry of off-track news in the summer (see: Confederate flag ban, Bubba Wallace incident at Talladega Superspeedway) NASCAR will wind down its season and crown a Cup Series champion.
The Championship 4 of Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano gives us a 50/50 shot at a first-time titlist. They're also evenly split in how they could conceivably boost NASCAR's popularity in the short-term.
Elliott, NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, is also the only twentysomething in the group. Winning his first title at 24 would match the age of NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon's first championship in 1995. It would mark a Hendrick Motorsports generational transition with Jimmie Johnson leaving full-time stock car racing after this event. And it would invigorate the sport whose fan base has seen the same drivers seeking the title for the past 5 years.
For Hamlin, at age 39, he remains the winningest all-time driver in NASCAR Cup history without a title in the modern era. Overall, only Junior Johnson (50 wins in NASCAR's early days) has more victories than Hamlin's 44 without a championship. After a seven-win season, his most since 2010, Sunday is crucially important for him to cash in. With co-ownership on the horizon and three very competitive Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, how many more chances will he get in the No. 11? Should he win it, a partnership in the sport with Michael Jordan would allow NASCAR new and unique opportunities to market itself.
Then, there are the two veterans over at Team Penske who are both well-known household names. Both Keselowski and Logano have championships already and their ability to expand NASCAR's fan base is more limited. Keselowski won back in 2012, under a different playoff system. He's struggled under the current format despite being one of the sport's more consistent drivers (three or more wins every season for the past five years). So, a win on Sunday would be vindication Keselowski can get it done in crunch time.
Logano, meanwhile, won his title in 2018 after sneaking into the Championship 4 with an upset in the Round of 8 (sound familiar?) At age 30, he's entering his prime while seeking a second championship in three seasons. A title for him or Keselowski would leave them tied with Kyle Busch as the only active drivers with multiple Cup championships come 2021.
That's because Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, is one of three drivers retiring from full-time competition after Sunday. Clint Bowyer will be leaving his seat at Stewart-Haas Racing's No. 14 to jump into the FOX broadcast booth in 2021. Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, will also be hanging it up at Chip Ganassi Racing in favor of Ross Chastain.
We should also acknowledge the owners running their final race. Leavine Family Racing (No. 95) and Germain Racing (No. 13) are closing up shop after this event while Go FAS Racing (No. 32) will scale back significantly come 2021. The future of small team ownership in the age of a COVID economy will be a big question for NASCAR to face over the offseason.
But that's a topic for another day. NASCAR should be given credit for finishing its season on time after a two-month delay that threatened the health of the sport. Even with the pandemic gripping the country, they made it through a tumultuous time in good enough shape to declare a champion come Sunday night.
Season Finale 500
Date: Sunday, Nov. 8
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Phoenix Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Chase Elliott
Let's be clear: Elliott took a major step in his career Sunday at Martinsville. The win was the first time he'd advanced to the final round in the Cup Series playoff and put demons of close, but no cigar behind him.
"We proved to ourselves that we can do it," Elliott said. "I think we have always believed we can do it. But to go out there and achieve it certainly is something we haven't experienced yet as a group."
Elliott wound up winning comfortably, by 6.577 seconds, overcoming a potential jackman penalty that was overturned by NASCAR officials. He took the lead away from Martin Truex Jr. with 43 laps remaining and was never seriously challenged the rest of the way.
"To win a championship in this series, you have to make the Final 4," he added. "We've seen the same crowd make the Final 4 since this deal has been implemented. We want to assert ourselves amongst the people who can make it consistently.
"I feel like we're very capable of doing that. We just have to seize the moment, enjoy it."
Who's at the Back: Kevin Harvick
Everything (and I mean everything) had to break against Harvick in the Round of 8 in order to miss the final round. But the nine-time winner who would have won the title two races early under the old system won't get a chance to compete for it.
Harvick's problems started with a near-miss, finishing second to Logano at Kansas Speedway. Then, a slick track at Texas Motor Speedway sent him into the wall and damaged the No. 4 car to the point he wasn't competitive. (Harvick finished 16th).
Then, Elliott's win took a second Championship 4 spot away during a Martinsville race that was Harvick's nightmare. A flat tire left him two laps down and struggling for much of the event. By the time Harvick got back on the lead lap, it was too late to make up for lost track position. A valiant effort to pass Kyle Busch to advance ended in a last-lap crash and Harvick fell short of a second title shot.
After an investigation, NASCAR chose not to penalize the No. 20 of Erik Jones or Joe Gibbs Racing for their actions at the end of the race at Martinsville. Jones was accused of not passing teammate Denny Hamlin during the closing laps in order to preserve that driver's spot in the Championship 4. In the end, Kevin Harvick's spin made the issue a moot point as the No. 11 team advanced into the final round with a solid cushion.
Cup Series Silly Season news was quiet this week, but Justin Allgaier will return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports in 2021. Allgaier and sponsor BRANDT will pair up for their sixth straight year running the No. 7 instead of jumping back up into the Cup Series.
Michael Annett will also jump back on the JR Motorsports train next season. It'll be his fifth straight year with JRM after dropping down from the Cup Series. Sponsors Pilot / Flying J will continue to back the No. 1 Chevrolet.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of nine races during the NASCAR playoff where Chase Elliott has led at least one lap. He's the only driver in the postseason besides Harvick to win twice.
Average finish for Jimmie Johnson during this year's NASCAR playoff, a postseason format he once dominated.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I say this one every year, but your lineup needs to be stacked this weekend with as many Championship 4 contenders as possible. In each of the past three seasons, the championship driver not only won the race, but his closest challenger wound up second. This year, the entire quartet will start up front and should be in position to lead the lion’s share of the race's 312 laps.
My money is on Joey Logano, the March winner, taking the title. But I think there's a chance this group, even with Kevin Harvick's success at this track, will match the 2018 results in the championship finale and wind up 1-2-3-4 in the final running order.
I'm going to take one last bet on retiring drivers. Matt Kenseth won this race in November 2017 and was competitive in 2018 in a bad year for Roush Fenway Racing. He should run well for a Chip Ganassi outfit that was fourth here in March in their last race with Kyle Larson at the helm.
Clint Bowyer is coming off a top-10 finish at Martinsville and is ending strong for SHR. And you have to think, despite a miserable playoff, Jimmie Johnson will have some semblance of respectability at this track. Keep in mind he ran 12th at Phoenix back in the spring.
Rookies, rookies, rookies. Christopher Bell has been coming on strong as of late with three straight top-15 finishes. He's a whole different Cup driver from the one who struggled at Phoenix back in March.
Tyler Reddick appeared to have a top-10 run going at this facility before a crash in the spring. And Cole Custer has a ninth-place result in that race before going on to an upset win at Kentucky Speedway and the sport's Rookie of The Year award. These drivers are relatively inexpensive this week and would fill out your roster nicely with top-heavy championship salaries.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick may not win the title but he's a favorite to win at Phoenix after nine career victories at the track. He stands at 3/1 odds while Kyle Busch sits at 11/2 and Denny Hamlin is at 6/1. It's interesting in that it's the first time in years the championship favorites are actually not favored to win the event. (I disagree.)
Chase Elliott sits at 7/1, Joey Logano at 17/2, and Brad Keselowski rounds out the Championship 4 at 10/1. No longshot pick this week only because the championship fight leaves them a wasted pick.
What I Think
In 2018, Joey Logano came into the championship finale and stunned what the media had labeled "The Big Three" to pull a title out from under their noses. In 2020, he prevented the favorite from advancing to this year's finale (Kevin Harvick) while keeping a low profile this week. The March winner of this race seems well-positioned for history to repeat itself and result in a second title in three seasons.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)