Sizing up NASCAR title contenders

November 2, 2021 08:25 PM
makinencar

This will be championship weekend at Phoenix International Raceway for all levels of NASCAR’s top series. Four drivers have advanced to Sunday’s  championship race by virtue of their performance over nine weeks of playoff races. These four will share the track with 35 other drivers, but only the four are eligible to win the series title. 

Whoever finishes best in this race among Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex will win the championship. Of the four, only Elliott (last year) and Truex (2017) have titles to their names. However, Larson is a somewhat heavy favorite, listed at + 190 to win, according to DraftKings. But recognize that the four drivers come from just two teams, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Consider this one major point if you’re thinking about wagering immediately. This will be a full weekend of action, including practice and qualifying. This has happened only seven times this season, and not since the mid-August event at the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Let’s go through the history of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race in its current format, as well as the key stats and facts for the four contenders.

History of the Cup Series Championship Race

The 2014 season was the first in which NASCAR used the current playoff system. Three elimination rounds are used to pare the field to four championship-eligible drivers for the season finale. Here are the results of those races with the four drivers who were eligible for the title:

Season (location): Drivers (race finishes)

2014 (Homestead): Kevin Harvick (1), Ryan Newman (2), Denny Hamlin (7), Joey Logano (16)

2015 (Homestead): Kyle Busch (1), Kevin Harvick (2), Jeff Gordon (6), Martin Truex (12)

2016 (Homestead): Jimmie Johnson (1), Joey Logano (4), Kyle Busch (6), Carl Edwards (34)

2017 (Homestead): Martin Truex (1), Kyle Busch (2), Kevin Harvick (4), Brad Keselowski (7)

2018 (Homestead): Joey Logano (1), Martin Truex (2), Kevin Harvick (3), Kyle Busch (4)

2019 (Homestead): Kyle Busch (1), Martin Truex (2), Kevin Harvick (4), Denny Hamlin (10)

2020 (Phoenix): Chase Elliott (1), Brad Keselowski (2), Joey Logano (3), Denny Hamlin (4)

A few key points can be taken from the results of previous championship races:

— The switch from Homestead to Phoenix was massive from a couple of perspectives. First, it gave a track that hosts two races each year the ultimate stage, helping teams from a competitive standpoint in that they had already been to that facility and could use notes from the previous race to their benefit in the title race. Second, Phoenix, a shorter track, is generally known for being more “racy” than Homestead, a longer, flatter track. This sets up more exciting, closer finishes. This was witnessed last year when the four title contenders finished first through fourth.

— I wouldn’t call it exactly moving over for the title contenders, but it’s almost that. The other cars on the track have certainly been cognizant of the locations of those racing for the crown. It shows in the four contenders’ final finish stats. In all seven championship races, the series champion won the race. There have also been two 1-2-3-4 finishes by the contenders in seven years, the average finish of the 28 drivers has been 5.1, and only three of the 28 have finished outside the top 10.

The four contenders and their key stats

Kyle Larson

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

To-win odds: + 190

Top-3 odds: -185

Top-5 odds: -400

Top-10 odds: -1400

Top-20 odds: -10000

Last three finishes at PIR: 7 in March, 4, 4 

Last three driver ratings at PIR: 99.57 (7), 99.5 (7), 102.7 (6)

Last 10 races average rating: 113.2 (2)

Finishes at the seven practice/qualifying races in 2021: 3-16-1-1-2-29-10 (average: 8.9)

Analysis: Larson’s story has been incredible, coming back from nearly a season-long suspension last year to claim the top spot in the 2021 series with nine wins, 19 top-5s and 25 top-10s. It took moving to a top-level team to accomplish this. Larson is the obvious favorite, having won two races in the last round to set the table for a title run. A concern in this one-race, best-finish-takes-all format is that Phoenix has not been his best track. He finished seventh here in March and wasn’t really a checkered-flag contender, running on average in the 11th position. In my opinion, he is the favorite, but I’m very leery of taking him to win this race. If the race winner again comes from the contending quartet, I don’t like his chances to grab his first title. If I were to place any wager on him, it would be to finish top-3 at -185.

Chase Elliott

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

To-win odds: + 350

Top-3 odds: -125

Top-5 odds: -240

Top-10 odds: -750

Top-20 odds: -5000

Last three finishes at PIR: 5 in March, 1, 7

Last three driver ratings at PIR: 93.7 (10), 136.5 (1), 127.2 (2)

Last 10 races average rating: 108 (3)

Finishes at the seven practice/qualifying races in 2021: 4-1-13-2-1-10-2 (average 4.7)

Analysis: Elliott is the defending series champion and my projected initial simulation winner. Moving the season finale to Phoenix was a godsend for Elliott, as it has always been one of his better tracks. This year’s March run wasn’t quite at the level he had been used to, however, and that has to concern him and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Larson. Elliott has been the best among the four drivers when he has been able to get practice time before a race, and he’s the well-documented best road-course racer, which is deemed important at PIR. In my opinion, he is the real favorite, and I’d be willing to take him in any of the wagering options.

Denny Hamlin

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

To-win odds: + 400

Top-3 odds: -110

Top-5 odds: -200

Top-10 odds: -700

Top-20 odds: -3000

Last three finishes at PIR: 3 in March, 4, 20 

Last three driver ratings at PIR: 125 (2), 118.5 (4), 63.1 (19)

Last 10 races average rating: 113.6 (1)

Finishes at the seven practice/qualifying races in 2021: 23-5-22-7-14-3-5 (average 11.3)

Analysis: Hamlin was the most consistent driver all season, although it was extremely frustrating for him to wait until the 27th race at Darlington to take home a win. He has since won another and goes into the season finale as the circuit’s hottest driver over the last 10 races by driver rating. That is key, as he has good momentum. Hamlin has never won a series title, though, and as much as he may be the hungriest among the contenders, he has come up short in this title race three times, including the last two years. I believe he has a good chance to win based on his solid run at Phoenix in March, and I would be even more inclined to say so should he have a good practice or qualifying run this weekend. However, if he does, you might lose some value. I’d take my Hamlin bets now and not wait for them to drop later. The Top 5 at -200 seems very solid.

Martin Truex

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

To-win odds: + 450

Top-3 odds: + 130

Top-5 odds: -160

Top-10 odds: -600

Top-20 odds: -3000

Last three finishes at PIR: 1 in March, 10, 32 

Last three driver ratings at PIR: 124.7 (3), 84.9 (13), 84.6 (10)

Last 10 races average rating: 95.0 (7)

Finishes at the seven practice/qualifying races in 2021: 15-9-23-29-35-19-25 (average 19.3)

Analysis: People doubt Truex because of his recent runs, having averaged a 12.6 finish since his last win at Richmond in September. However, that victory was huge in relation to this race, as the track is similar to PIR, plus he won at this track in March. If you’re looking for any other reasons Truex could be the surprise victor, consider that he has the most experience in championship races among the contenders, having been in the final four four times since 2014. His big concern is the finishes he has had in the practice-qualifying events, as his average finish has been 19.3 and his best only ninth. Truex has encountered some problems in those races, but it also speaks to his team’s inability to get the car tuned up after practice runs. This doesn’t feel like a championship season for Truex, but stranger things have happened.

Are any other drivers capable of upsetting the title race?

A few others would seem capable of pulling an upset and leaving the four contenders battling in a best-finish scenario. One is Alex Bowman, last week’s winner at Martinsville. It is believed that drivers who fare well on road courses and flat tracks tend to do well at Phoenix. Bowman has momentum from the win last week, although Martinsville offers a different brand of racing. Bowman’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, William Byron, has also been hot lately, scoring three straight top-6 finishes. But with two other Hendrick drivers battling for the title, I can’t imagine team owner Rick Hendrick would be pleased if either of his non-title contenders plays too big a role in the outcome.

Other drivers who would seem to have a chance would be Kyle Busch, who came closest to making the four-man field, as he has just enough edge not to care what happens with the title scenario as long as he wins. Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, all from Penske Racing, have rich histories of running well at Phoenix. They rank first, third and fifth, respectively, on PIR Track Handicap Ratings. My initial simulation has those drivers all projected for top-5 finishes, which is of course due to change after considering the practice and qualifying results.

Practice is set for 4:50 p.m. ET Friday, and qualifying will begin at 7:05 p.m. ET Saturday. I will have a final race simulation ready Sunday morning. Simply watch for your VSiN email or look on VSiN.com in the hours leading up to Sunday’s 3 p.m. ET start.

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