NASCAR’s final 4 worried solely about Sunday’s finale in Phoenix
Nov 6, 2021, 7:15 AM
PHOENIX — The phrase “duel in the desert” means something different in Arizona this weekend. NASCAR’s championship race is more than deserving of borrowing that phrase from the state’s university rivalry with the sport’s ultimate prize at stake.
Four drivers are a Sunday afternoon race at Phoenix Raceway away from a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Race points, stage points and playoff points all do not matter this weekend. It’s a one-race showdown. The best finisher of the Championship 4 drivers will win the title.
Any other factor, such as experience and previous track performance, are simply other factors for Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.
As it relates to championship experience:
“That’s one of the most overrated things that people can take into account,” Hamlin said during the NASCAR Championship Weekend Media Day on Thursday. “It’s more about how fast your car is.”
Hamlin knows from personal experience. Last year at Phoenix Raceway, Chase Elliott beat Hamlin and two other championship contenders to win his first Cup Series title in his first Championship 4 appearance.
Elliott’s encore to his first championship has been stellar. Only two race wins this season is a bit misleading when considering his 14 top-five finishes, which places him tied for third with Kyle Busch this season.
Elliott has dealt with the target of being the defending champion well all season. The pressure of defending his title at Phoenix doesn’t change that.
“I feel really good and I feel like our team’s very laid back and ready to go,” Elliott said. “We try to perform at a high level and that’s what rewards you the most. If it’s not going to make us go faster, we don’t care about it right now.”
NBC analyst Kyle Petty said that the mindset Elliott has isn’t just an acceptable one, “it’s the only mindset.”
“When you start trying to change your driving style or change the strategy that you’ve had all year, then you make mistakes,” Petty said. “That happens to the best of them. You’ve got to just focus on one race, and that’s all you can do.”
Elliott’s teammate, Larson, has dominated the Cup Series throughout 2021. In his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, Larson has nine wins with three in a row in the playoffs before finishing 14th last weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
He leads the series in multiple major categories, including laps led (2,474), stage wins (17), and playoff points (65).
None of that matters on Sunday as Larson races for his first NASCAR national series championship. Despite that fact, Larson’s trying to keep things similar to other races.
“I haven’t treated any of it differently than any other race so far,” Larson said. “I haven’t had any butterflies this week, which has been good because I didn’t know how I would feel leading into this week’s events, but I think I’m just really excited for the opportunity.”
Truex Jr. has also had a stellar season ahead of championship Sunday. Four wins and 12 top-five finishes have made the one-time Cup Series champion deserving of racing for a second in 2021.
He’s raced for the championship four times in his career when the title race took place at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He failed to make the Championship 4 in NASCAR’s first year of holding title races in Phoenix last season.
Not experiencing the championship pressure at Phoenix before doesn’t faze Truex Jr. The venue may even benefit him, as he won the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway back in March.
“Phoenix has been a good track and 750 [horsepower] tracks have been kind of what we’ve been our best at this year,” Truex Jr. said.
All four drivers vying for NASCAR’s biggest prize are keeping things very familiar before racing for the championship. That task will become increasingly tougher throughout the week, though. That’s because practice and qualifying return for the first time in more than two months.
Truex Jr. thinks having additional opportunities to take to the track outside of the race will play a factor in how Sunday plays out.
“I think it’s going to make it more competitive,” Truex Jr. said. “I honestly think it’s a more fair competition for guys to have practice.”
The competitive parity in the 2021 season is something he’ll take with him as a bit of a shock.
“I know Larson’s won a lot of races, but I think across the board every week, we just never really knew who was going to show up,” Truex Jr. said. “We’ve seen a lot of guys [who were] really competitive that we haven’t [seen] in the past.”
It could make the 2021 championship that much more special for whoever raises the Bill France Cup on Sunday as the best in the sport.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship – Time, TV
Time: 1 p.m.