As expected, the final festivities ended on the track leading up to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Finals with Championship 4 contenders atop the speed charts at Phoenix Raceway. In a battle between veterans and novices, the experienced finally came to the fore when it mattered.
Joey Logano will outperform his rivals after winning first place in the Championship Cup race (1 p.m. Sunday, NBC) by 26.788 seconds around the mile oval, which was enough to beat teammate Ryan Blaney. Three thousandths of a second.
Back at the end of the series last year, that award comes with special significance to Lugano and his #22 Ford Mustang Pinske team. Kyle Larson was able to become the 2021 champion thanks to winning the pole and securing his first pit stall, as his team launched an unprecedented pit stop to take the lead in the final race resumption.
“Qualifying means a lot, don’t get me wrong,” Lugano said. “It means a little less when you’re in Championship 4, because at worst it’s the fourth best booth, but (first) it’s definitely the best. There’s also the effect of clean air (and) staying up front. It’s a good place to be.”
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Phoenix is a tough track to pass, so having the preferred position up front will be another big advantage for the 2018 champion. Not far from that will be the only other former player in the competition, Chase Elliott, to qualify for fifth.
Elliott was able to maintain a balanced weekend from his demeanor to on-track performance. Driver Hendrick wrapped up training in his No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to finish 10th fastest with 55 laps – more than all the competitors in Championship 4.
“I was very happy with our qualifying effort,” Elliott said. “I thought we went faster than we did (on Friday in practice) for one lap speed, so I was pleasantly surprised by that. Hopefully it continues tomorrow and we can have a good day.”
The former champions were the last four contenders to qualify inside the top ten after Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell failed to advance to the final round of the time trial session.
A possible reason for this baffling turn of events was, in Chastain’s case, the difference in the track conditions for the two events. Drills took place in the dark starting at 5pm, while qualifying took place at 1:30pm, a stark difference in terms of surface temperature and the impact this has on the handling of the cars.
Chastain stunned the competition, as he has done all season, and finished off the season’s final practice as the fastest man in Phoenix with a margin of 27.019 seconds at 133.24 mph. On his return to the garage on Friday night, he was greeted by a large crowd under the influence of “sugar watermelon high,” as they chanted his name.
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The commotion soon subsided after Chastain failed to translate that pace into a qualification. Of the Championship 4 drivers, he and his first team Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 will have the most work, starting at 25.
Bell has had the toughest time in Phoenix since unloading his #20 Toyota Camry from a Gibbs Racing van. He finished training as the championship’s 4th slowest driver, 0.312sec off Chastain’s hot lap. Fortunately for him, they were able to find some speed in the qualifying, albeit a small gain, as they would take off in 17th place for the series finals.
If it’s any consolation, Toyota as a whole didn’t do well in qualifying—Ty Gibbs’ 10th would be the manufacturer’s best starting position.
Penske’s team pair will be Logano and Blaney starting in the front row with Chase Briscoe – Phoenix Spring race winner – and champion Larson behind them, who will run for the owner’s championship.
Finally, Zane Smith won the Truck Championship
After 150 laps and overtime, Zane Smith finally won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Smith beat defending champions Ben Rhodes and Chandler Smith in Friday night’s two-state overtime to win at Phoenix Raceway and ultimately take the title after finishing second for the past two years.
The California native was in the lead for 77 laps and won all three stages. After starting the season with a win, Zane Smith finished the year with four places in the top spot.
“I wanted this…more than anything else in the world,” Smith said after the race.
– Lucas Gordon
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