Avondale, Arizona – NASCAR’s long and unpredictable season ends Sunday with a proper year-long championship race that has seen an unprecedented and clearly unprecedented par.
Sure, Chase Elliott topped the standings for most of the season while winning five regular season races and titles. But all else being equal this year, a first for the new, next-generation Neckar to level the playing field.
The Cup Series celebrated 19 different winners – 21 if races are counted without points – and five drivers were first-time winners. The momentum was fast and turned around the garage weekly and the end result is a one-of-a-kind final in the winner-takes-all final at Phoenix Raceway.
Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain will compete for the championship for the first time in their careers, while Elliott and Joey Logano are chasing their second title. Lugano won in 2018 and Elliott won in 2020 in Hendrik’s first consecutive motorsport championship.
Kyle Larson won last year but was knocked out in the second round, leaving Elliott as Hendrik’s only way to win three cup titles in a row. And experience could count: Lugano won the pole in qualifying on Saturday while Elliott was fourth.
“We’ve been the favorites since the start of the year, if you ask me,” said Penske’s Lugano. His Ford won his first Next Generation race, the show at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in January.
“This is how I go to a racetrack and if I don’t go to a track like this, then I shouldn’t be,” Lugano continued. “So I always said what everyone thinks about preferences and odds and all that rubbish. I don’t care. I know what my odds are, and I know what I feel. We’ve proven (in the playoffs) we have a good horse and we are ready to rock and roll.”
By the way, the odds are according to FanDuel Sportsbook, Elliott would prefer to win the title. Logano is trying to give Roger Penske a trophy in the same season that the organization won the IndyCar Championship with Will Power.
Chastain qualified for 25th, the worst contender for the title, and Bell has struggled since Joe Gibbs Racing dumped his Toyota and would start 17th. But Bell had fallen before in these qualifying rounds and won twice to avoid disqualification and reach his first title race.
Bale insisted, “I feel like I have the best team out of the four. I absolutely love our chances.”
If he needs a win to win, Bale has proven he can do it twice, including a dramatic win last week in Martinsville to save his season. And since the winner-takes-all formula was put in place in 2014, the champ has won the final race to win the cup.
The next generation showed how many drivers they could win each week, and although Elliott slipped a bit in qualifying, he loves his chances as well.
“When I sit down and look at this weekend and the way that shape is working and the way the last four (with one race) are working, if you’re participating, you have a chance,” Elliott said.
This includes Chastain, who rose to fame last Sunday with a final-stroke round of wall riding that earned him five places and edged out opponent Denny Hamlin by two points off the last place in the championship race. The video game style movement has been celebrated globally in motorsports but not so much in the NASCAR garage.
His fellow drivers believe that what Chastain did in intentionally crashing into the wall, taking his hands off the steering wheel and placing them on the ground while letting the wall steer his Chevrolet, was a dangerous move. During the amusement, they argued that it could have gone terribly wrong and injured someone, including the spectators.
Chastain was attacked in a completely sold-out Phoenix by fans who were mesmerized by the move, and Chastain said after qualifying that he found his backlash a bit strange. An eighth-generation watermelon grower and racer from Florida used the move to put the Trackhouse Racing team for the second year in the first championship race.
“Ross is kind of a different build,” said Justin Marks, founder of Track House. “I think someone has that kind of psychology, that kind of doing whatever it takes and has a lot of desire – they want it so badly.”