THE LEFT TURN
NASCAR championship at Phoenix: Preview, picks
The time has come, the final race of the 2022 season. Over the past 35 weeks, we have seen literally everything from first time winners, flipped race cars, hard hits and short tempers. It has truly been one of the most memorable seasons in recent memory and now it all comes down to Sunday as four drivers will battle at Phoenix Raceway for the crown. Those four drivers have all had different paths to get to this point not just this season but in their careers as it’s one of the most diverse final fours we have ever seen. When you look at the average finish amongst the four, they are only separated by one position. Consistency has been the key this year with this brand-new car, and these final four prove it. This is shaping up to be a season finale to remember for a season to remember
The first driver to punch his ticket to the championship race was Joey Logano. After a victory at Las Vegas, the 2018 champion established himself as the pre-race favorite to win this year, and it makes sense considering the season he has had. 2022 started out a bit slow after a disappointing 21st finish at Daytona, but in the next five races he would record 3 top tens and a top five at Fontana. He would really begin to shine after his first win at Darlington, as he would follow up his victory with a win two weeks later at Gateway. Logano has had a pretty solid playoffs this year with an average finish of 13.3, so he has been a contender. What makes Joey stand out amongst the other three is how fast he has been at Phoenix. Of all active drivers, Logano has the second-highest average finish at this racetrack since 2019. He’s scored 1 win here and has led over 19 percent of the laps here. Back in 2020, Logano was well on his way to a second title, but an ill-handling race car cost him his chance. Could 2022 be his redemption arc? Look for Joey Logano to be strong on the track come Sunday.
Chase Elliott has easily had the best season of his career, he’s scored 5 victories, 12 top fives, 20 top tens, and has led 857 laps. If there is anyone who deserves the championship the most it has to be him. Arguably he’s had the best season but as we all know in this system, it all comes down to one race. After Martinsville, Chase had to fight and claw to get into the championship race after an abysmal playoff. He currently has the lowest average finish amongst the four (16.5). It’s important to note that these results have not been indicative of how fast he has been in these races. For example, he easily had the fastest car at Texas but a flat tire derailed his day. At the Roval he led the most laps but was taken out by Tyler Reddick on the final restart. Luckily, Elliott had those five victories in the regular season to fall back on, and it saved him from missing the championship race. Overall, Phoenix is an average track for him, the finishes haven’t been there, but he has been strong overall as he’s led over 17 percent of the laps run at this track since 2019. Of course, he has a victory here back in 2020 when he clinched the championship.
Christopher Bell has had quite the resurgence in the playoffs this season. He was solid in the regular season with a win at New Hampshire but not many would think he would go on the run that he has. In the first round, his average finish was 4th with two victories. Whenever Bell’s back was against the wall, he and his crew-chief Adam Stevens always found a way to bounce back to move on to the next round with a win. Bell is by far the driver that is on the hottest streak going into Phoenix. While he has plenty of momentum, he has struggled here at Phoenix. In his previous five starts here, Bell has only finished in the top ten twice. He will need to do much better than that if he wants to win his first championship.
It has truly been a Cinderella season for Ross Chastain. No one could have seen Chastain’s ascent to the top happening this year. While he had put together some good races last season in the #42 for Chip Ganassi, he was never considered a title contender by any means. The same could be said about the team he drives for with Trackhouse racing. They were another team that was solid and putting together top ten finishes with Daniel Suarez but weren’t close to competing for a title. They made a huge leap by purchasing Ganassi Racing and were instantly competitive. Chastain would score the team's first win in dramatic fashion at COTA in May and instantly become a title contender. In the first two rounds, he was able to run consistently and advance because of the points he accumulated but at Martinsville, he appeared to be on the outside looking in, that was until he made quite possibly the greatest move in racing history. He would ride the wall through the corner and hold down the throttle on a prayer and it worked perfectly. Ross will be the sentimental favorite to win the title this week by fans and racers all over the world. Phoenix isn’t a track where Ross has had the results he’d want but it’s important to note that the car he is in this week is much better than what he has had over the last two seasons. Plus, he was fast here in the spring after a second-place finish.
Overall, after the dust settles, the driver that I have winning the championship this year is Ross Chastain. Over the course of the last 9 races, no one has a higher average finish than he does (10.5) not to mention how good his car was here in the spring. He has proven that he will do anything necessary to win the title, with that drive and determination to win, it will be hard to stop him, and what a story it would be. This was a driver that had to fight and claw to get to this point, he would drive for teams who were operating on a shoestring budget and would make the best of it. He was given a chance by Ganassi and has made the best of it as Trackhouse owner Justin Marks kept him on the team. Come Sunday, look for Ross Chastain to fulfill a dream and win the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.