The four drivers who’ve qualified for the Championship Round of the NASCAR Playoffs didn’t get as much attention as one driver who failed to make the cut last Sunday at the Martinsville Speedway.
So going into Sunday’s season finale at the Phoenix Raceway, the only thing that’s certain is regular season champion and wins leader Kevin Harvick can’t win the championship. Nothing else, including a clear championship favorite, is clear.
Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are the last men standing in the season-long race to be the face of stock-car racing for the next year. Logano and Elliott earned their spot in Sunday’s winner-take-all race in the Arizona desert by winning a race in the third round of the playoffs. Logano and Keselowski both slipped through the back door by one finishing position in the last three races to push Harvick to the sidelines.
Despite leading the Cup Series in wins (nine), top-fives (20) and top-10s (26), Harvick will be nothing more than a spectator – and a likely spoiler – in the final race of a season that’s been racked with the challenges of COVID-19 and the scheduling nightmares that followed. Harvick’s elimination only adds to a frustrating and perplexing year that is 2020.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas have installed Elliott and Hamlin as co-favorites at +235, which means a better can make $235 on a $100 wager. Logano is posted at +265, while Keselowski is at +280. In short, nobody is a clear favorite – and for good reason. A loose lug nut, speeding penalty, slow lapped car, flat tire or another driver’s mistake is likely to affect the outcomes. Add that to 1,000 moving parts inside each car, and nothing is guaranteed.
To win the championship, all one of the Final Four drivers has to do is finish ahead of his three competitors. No bonus points for leading laps or winning stages. Line them up and let the best man win.
Of the four, Logano is the only one who’s confident in winning. He believes he will back up his 2018 championship with his second title in three years.
“I think we've proven our team is definitely the team to beat,” he said. “We're well rounded. I think that's something that can help us [this] week.”
Logano has a big advantage. He won the first race of the third round at the Kansas Speedway to lock his spot in the Final Four, which gave his team two weeks to work on his Phoenix car. Elliott didn’t advance until his win last Sunday night at Martinsville, while Keselowski and Hamlin barely squeaked in just one point above the cut line.
“Really the past two weeks the advantage we earned was to be able to focus on our Phoenix car before everybody,” Logano said. “That's the advantage we had. We get to go to these races not having our tongues hanging out trying to get in. Our batteries are charged up and we're ready to go. That part is nice.”
Logano also has the momentum of winning on the mile-long track on March 8 – the last race before the nation shut down for more than two months for the coronavirus.
Hamlin has two victories at Phoenix, including the fall race last year.
“I think we can win any given week for sure,” Hamlin said. “The short tracks haven’t been great for us all year, but you just never know. Last year, we went there and nearly lapped the field, so who knows how it’s going to turn out. One race, winner take all, you never know. It’s an entirely different ballgame now. It really is. The aerodynamic package is a lot different. There’re no similarities that you can really draw to it. You just never know. Obviously, we’re going to be ready and we’re going to be prepared and hopefully we’ll go out there and show what we’ve got.”
Keselowski and Elliott have never won at Phoenix.
“I mean, I think the worst thing we can do is to sit back and worry and watch everybody else,” Elliott said. “I just think we need to focus on ourselves this week and really think about what we struggled with there at the first race this year, what we might need to do to be better, put our best guess on that, go run the race. I think if we sit back, start worrying about who is favorite, who is not, who is the underdog, getting everybody running their mouths deal, I'm just not about that. I think it's unproductive.
“We're going to worry about ourselves, try to give it our best shot to win.”
Keselowski is just as guarded about his chances.
“I know we’ve got great cars on these short tracks and one-mile tracks,” he said. “At the end of the race we might have had the best car. If we bring this kind of an effort at the end of the race at Phoenix, we’ve got a great shot at it.
“I think all of us are pretty evenly matched going into Phoenix. I think it's about as even matched as it's going to get.”
Three months from now, they’ll start all over again down the road at the Daytona International Speedway with the Busch Clash invitation exhibition race on Feb. 9 and the iconic Daytona 500 following on Feb. 14.