One race. Four drivers. The NASCAR Cup Series championship.
That pretty much boils down the main storyline heading into Sunday’s final race of the 2020 NASCAR season. This year’s Championship 4 of drivers — Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski — have a shot at walking away with the coveted Cup Series crown.
NASCAR’s unique race-within-a-race playoff format pits those four drivers against one another as well as the rest of a field filled with drivers who, while out of the title picture, want to end the year on a positive note. All any of the championship drivers need to do to wrap up the title is finish ahead of the other three, not necessarily win the race. Although the champ has won the race since this format debuted in 2014, the highest-finishing Championship 4 competitor takes the crown.
It sets up an intriguing afternoon in Phoenix, which is hosting the finale for the first time after more than two decades at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 1-mile track was repaved and reconfigured two years ago as officials literally turned the speedway around. What was the backstretch is now where the start-finish line sits, an area that features a wide area of asphalt through the track’s famous dogleg, which has built a reputation for four- and sometimes five-wide competition before things settle down.
Passing was extremely difficult in last season’s Phoenix races as drivers adapted to a new rules package that created extreme downforce on the cars that literally stuck them to the track surface. But a different set of parameters was put into play this year, and drivers now have to manage their cars slipping and sliding around the track. Pit-road strategy will also play an important role in gaining position, as will on-track passing.
Here are the favorites for Sunday’s NASCAR championship race in Phoenix:
He won at Phoenix in March, and his team plans to bring back the same car this weekend for Logano to have a shot at his second Cup title. Logano also won at Phoenix in 2016 and is riding a streak of three straight top-10 finishes at the track. The Team Penske driver has also finished in the top three in three of the last four races of 2020.
He raced his way into the Championship 4 by virtue of his Martinsville win last week, leading a career-high 236 laps. Elliott was seventh at Phoenix in March and has four top-10 performances in nine career starts at the track.
The defending race winner, Hamlin has been off in recent weeks but was good enough to make it to the Championship 4 after an 11th-place Martinsville run. He has a 10.6 average finish over the previous 10 Phoenix races.
He’s bringing the same car that carried him to victories this year in New Hampshire and Richmond. Those tracks are very similar in nature to Phoenix. He led 82 laps in the March race.
If anyone outside the Championship 4 is going to win Sunday, Harvick is the best bet. He was eliminated from the playoffs last week in Martinsville despite winning a series-best nine times this season. He has won seven times in Phoenix during his Cup Series career, including four straight in 2014-15.