- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
The 2020 version of the NASCAR Championship 4 will be hitting the track Sunday afternoon at the Homestead-Mia … wait … sorry, the Phoenix Raceway for another edition of stock car racing’s best-finisher-takes-the-crown showdown.
Though old school NASCAR followers still refer to it as the “new format,” this is the seventh edition of stock car racing’s four-car Battle Royale, but the need to win the year’s last race to take the Cup goes back a decade, when Tony Stewart outdueled Carl Edwards. Starting that night a decade ago, the season champion has had to win the season finale to clinch a whopping seven out of nine times.
So, who are this year’s four, and what information do you need to gauge their chances of winning it all? We’re so glad you asked, because we’ve been working on this since their names were set in stone last weekend.
2020: 3 wins, 11 top 5s, 20 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 814 laps led
Career at Phoenix: 23 starts, 2 wins, 5 top 5s, 12 top 10s, 4 DNFs, average finish: 14.3, latest win: March 8, 2020
Remember when everyone was ready to throw out Sliced Bread as overrated and unworthy of the moniker pinned to his lapel by Mark Martin when Logano was just a kid? Well, anyone still sticking to that criticism is simply in Joey denial. This is his ninth straight season with at least one race win and his fifth of three or more. It’s also his fourth appearance in the Championship 4 since 2014, the pinnacle being his Cup title two years ago. He won that title despite being in the throes of a brutal stretch of four bad Phoenix finishes. Just before that, he earned his only win in the desert — the spring race of 2016. However, now he’s riding a streak of three top-10s, including a win there on March 8, AKA the Last Race Before COVID.
2020: 4 wins. 14 top 5s, 21 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 1,094 laps led
Career at Phoenix: 9 starts, 0 wins, 2 top 5s, 5 top 10s, 1 DNF, average finish: 13.0, best finish: 2nd, fall 2017
This will be the Chosen One’s second de facto must-win situation in as many weekends, and the last one worked out pretty darn well, a Martinsville victory that landed him in this final round. A championship would be the final step in Elliott’s lifelong march toward his NASCAR manifest destiny, but he will have to win (or at least run ahead of the other three) at a racetrack where he has struggled with inconsistency. He began his Phoenix Cup career in 2016 with five straight top-12 finishes, including a pair of consecutive could’ve-won runs in 2017-18. He has struggled in his past three runs, with finishes at 23rd, 14th and 39th (a crash), but on March 8, he won the pole, led 93 laps and finished seventh. If he can replicate that effort Sunday, he’ll be in the thick of the Chase (get it?) all evening long. BTW, if you’re a fan of his father, Bill Elliott won the second Phoenix Cup race in 1988 and never really came close again, with only four top-10s in 21 career starts. If his kid wins the race and the championship, he will have already matched Pops in both Phoenix wins and Cup titles. Not bad for a 24-year-old.
2020: 4 wins, 12 top 5s, 23 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 936 laps led
Career at Phoenix: 22 starts, 0 wins, 6 top 5s, 10 top 10s, 1 DNF, average finish: 13.5, best finish: 2nd, fall 2018
BK has won four races this season and the most dominating of those performances came at New Hampshire on Aug. 2 and at Richmond less than two months ago, the second race of the NASCAR playoffs. So, guess what car he’ll be driving on Sunday? Yep, the same No. 2 Ford that already smoked those two Phoenix-ish racetracks. The challenge for the 2012 Cup champ at the track framed by Rattlesnake Hill is to overcome a career of being snakebit in the desert. He has never won there in a dozen years of trying, including a too-typical performance in March, when he led 82 laps — nearly as many as he led in his previous 21 starts combined — before fading into the background and watching Penske teammate Joey Logano take the victory.
2020: 7 wins, 17 top 5s, 20 top 10s, 1 DNF, 1083 laps led
Career at Phoenix: 30 starts, 2 wins, 13 top 5s, 17 top 10s, 1 DNF, average finish: 11.3, latest win: November 10, 2019
His cars have been the fastest, most consistent and most dominant driven by anyone in 2020 not named Kevin Harvick. But unlike Happy, Hambone carried over his regular-season success into the final stage of the playoffs, well, sort of. His one postseason win (Oct. 4 at Talladega) and average playoff finish of 11.1 hasn’t been pretty, but hey, this isn’t an essay contest, it’s about getting there however you can. Speaking of which, Hamlin has gotten here before, and the results have been reminiscent of new business partner Michael Jordan’s early struggles to get past the Detroit Pistons. Hamlin’s title losses have come straight out of a sports psychology textbook, as in all the bad chapters. A Cup is the only trophy missing from his NASCAR Hall of Fame-bound collection. After all those great years that sputtered in the season finale, wouldn’t it be the perfect plot twist to win the race and title after stumbling through the postseason? As the defending champ of this very race, the FedEx ride might very well finally deliver in the year’s grand finale.
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