THE LEFT TURN
NASCAR: Phoenix championship preview plus picks
The time has come, the NASCAR Cup Series heads for Phoenix for the last race of this insane 2020 season. Right from the start this year has been one unlike any other from the Ryan Newman crash in Daytona to the massive global pandemic that paused racing for nearly three months. This has not been a continental season in the slightest. But now it all resets, it all hinges upon four drivers who will race for a championship on Sunday.
For the first time in the sports history, the season finale will be held at Phoenix Raceway. This track is a one mile "superspeedway" with an asphalt surface. It also features a huge dip in the front-stretch called the dogleg. Because of this, we see a bunch of cars drop all the way off the racing surface to try and make a pass. The finish line was also moved all the way to the entry of turn one similar to what we see at Talladega, so this is where most of the action will be on the track.
The winner last week was Chase Elliott, he was able to fend off a last second charge from all three Penske cars in the closing laps. This victory officially punched his ticket to this week's championship race for the first time in the young driver's career. This had been a long time coming for the fan favorite as he has been in contention every year. He now goes to a track where he has been good in the past but recently he has really struggled including a last place finish here last November. This is certainly not a track that the 9 team has circled on their calendar but if they can find the speed they have shown there before, they can really contend for the championship.
The one thing he will have on his side is where he will be starting as he will be near the front row with NASCAR's new starting line-up procedures. If I know one thing though, if the prodigal son from Dawsonville can pull off the victory, there will be tons of celebration all around the racing world. If they are going to win though one thing crew-chief Alan Gufaston and his team may want to try and avoid this week is mistakes on pit-road. Last week his Jackman went over the wall too soon and Elliott was penalized for it. Lucky for them, he was spared as NASCAR rescinded the penalty because the crew member went back to the wall and touched it with his foot as Elliott entered pit-road. This doesn't make much sense to me personally but regardless they got a break, and he went on to win the race. They need to be careful because next time they might not be so lucky. Look for the #9 Camaro to be the fan favorite to win the title.
Joey Logano got his win out of the way early and clinched his spot at Kansas. He currently enters this week as the favorite to win the title considering he won at this track back in March before the whole world shutdown and while he does have that on his side, his stats here over the last four races don't look great for the 2018 champion. Since 2018, Logano has finished 1st, 9th, 10th and 37th here and any other time that wouldn't look too bad but considering you almost have to win this race to win the title, more than likely a top ten won't get the job done. Regardless, he has a great team behind him and will be the toughest driver to contend with this week. Look for Logano to be out front.
Joey's teammate Brad Keselowski will also be racing for a championship this week after getting in by the skin of his teeth. He was able to overcome a pit-road speeding penalty and rebound for a fourth place finish. He made it in by the narrowest of margins as he was one point ahead of Kevin Harvick for the fourth and final spot until Harvick spun himself and Kyle Busch taking Harvick out of contention. While a lot of people didn't really expect the 2012 champion to be in this position this week, Brad has done more than enough to prove that he has earned his chance. This year he has four wins and twenty-three top tens, so he has been quietly in the mix for a win every week. This track at Phoenix has not been good to him though as his last four finishes have been 11th,10th,19th and 2nd. He will have to improve big time if he wants a chance at his second championship.
The last driver to make it into the championship four was Denny Hamlin. Like Keselowski, he too was only one point to the good ahead of Kevin Harvick but thanks to his teammate, he was able to clinch a spot in the championship four. In the closing laps of the race, Hamlin was under immense pressure from his (soon to be gone) teammate Erik Jones. It looked like he was going to make the pass on him and force a tie between him and Kevin Harvick but someone came over the radio and said "Don't pass him Jones, stay with him if you can" thus practically sealing the deal for Hamlin. Many people were upset about this move but NASCAR saw no issue and didn't issue any penalties to the 11 team. While he got there with much controversy, all that matters is he got there and with the season he's had, it's hard to argue that he doesn't belong. Overall, he has won seven races and finished in the top five twenty times. Aside from Kevin Harvick no one has had a better season than him. Phoenix is a fairly good track for him, but he did finish twentieth in the spring. Look for the #11 FedEx Toyota Camry to be a contender as well.
Of the four drivers I have mentioned the driver that I have winning the championship this week is Denny Hamlin. Ever since his rookie year in 2006, the Virginia driver has been incredibly fast. Many considered him a driver that would win a lot of championships in the future and while he has won almost everything else, a championship has always evaded him. At this point, many are already considering him the best driver to never win a title, but this week I think it will be a different story. At the start of the playoffs, if someone would have told me who the championship four would have been, first I would have cringed and then secondly I would say that Denny would have the best path to victory. Not to say that Elliott, Logano or Brad don't belong but considering the incredible season that Kevin Harvick had, I would have imagined he would be there as well, but he isn't. Those two have been the best out there, and we all would have figured it would come down to them but in sports, the two best teams don't always make it to the end.
Now this doesn't mean it will be easy for the three time Daytona 500 winner as both Penske cars and Chase Elliott have momentum on their side, but I just think the stars are aligning for the 11 team. Denny and his crew-chief Chirs Gabehart have done a fantastic job this season and now they get to go to a track where Hamlin has won at twice in the past. If they can put the perfect race together, they will have to pry the championship from his hands. Look for Hamlin to take the crown this season.