By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz — 35 races down, one to go.
Sunday afternoon, the NASCAR Cup Series will hit the track at Phoenix Raceway for the 2021 season finale, bringing this season to a close and crowning a champion.
After being held at Homestead-Miami Speedway from 2002 to 2019, the championship race moved to the Arizona desert starting last season, giving the four drivers competing for the title a whole new challenge in their pursuit of the Bill France Cup.
Heading into this year’s championship race, it will be a battle between Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, as well as defending champions and those who hope to win their first title.
Whittled down from the 16 original championship contenders to the final four, defending Cup champion Chase Elliott will look to make it back-to-back titles, while regular season champion Kyle Larson, as well as Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will be on a mission to unseat him and take the crown for themselves.
Already having a championship in their pocket, a second title is the goal on Sunday for Elliott and Truex, while Larson and Hamlin are gunning for their first championship.
By the Numbers
What: NASCAR Cup Series Championship, Race No. 36 of 36
Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)
When: Sunday, November 7
TV/Radio: NBC, 3:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 1.0-mile oval
Banking: Eight to nine degrees in Turns 1-2, 10 to 11 degrees in Turns 3-4 and frontstretch dogleg
Race Length: 312 laps, 312 miles (500 km)
Stage Lengths: Stage One – 75 laps each, Stage Two – 115 laps, Final stage – 122 laps
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
Fuel Window: 85 to 90 laps
March 2021 Race Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota (Started 13th, 60 laps led)
November 2020 Race Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started third, 143 laps led)
Tale of the Tape – How the Championship 4 Stack Up:
Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2021 Stats: Nine wins (Las Vegas, Charlotte, Sonoma, Nashville, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Charlotte Roval, Texas, Kansas), 19 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes, one pole, 2474 laps led, 9.3 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 14 starts, no wins, five top-five finishes, eight top-10 finishes, 72 laps led, 13.0 average finish
Starting Position: Pole
Why Larson Can Win: Throughout the 2021 campaign, Larson has been the class of the field, dominating in nearly every category imaginable, so it’s natural that he is the odds-on favorite to bring home the trophy. Even if he doesn’t consider himself to be the favorite.
Nonetheless, the championship will have to go through Larson and the No. 5 team on Sunday afternoon. They’ve just been too good for that not to be the case.
What the Driver Says: “I think this year has felt good to prove to myself that I am who I thought I could be, I guess prove to a lot of people I am what I thought I could be.
“Competing for a championship ultimately verifies all that.
“I’ve been super successful in everything else that I’ve raced, but haven’t gotten to show it in Cup. Glad I could come into great equipment and show what I thought I was capable of doing.”
Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2021 Stats: Two wins (Circuit of the Americas, Road America), 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 858 laps led, 11.5 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 11 starts, one win (November 2020), four top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, one pole, 402 laps led, 11.2 average finish
Starting Position: Second
Why Elliott Can Win: Until the checkered flag falls on Sunday’s race, Elliott is still the champion unless someone comes in and takes it away from him. Though he hasn’t put up the numbers his Hendrick Motorsports teammate has, Elliott has been calm, cool, and collected heading into the weekend at Phoenix, ready to make it back-to-back championships.
At this point in the year, Georgia sports are on a roll, with the Atlanta Braves winning the World Series and the Georgia Bulldogs on top of the college football world, so it’s only logical that Elliott continues that trend and keeps the championship trophy in Dawsonville.
What the Driver Says: “I think for us, I feel like we’re very capable. I’ve said this a lot, but I just feel like when our group is at our best, I feel like we can run with whoever. I’ve felt that way for a long time, and I’ve been really proud of the way we’ve run the last couple weeks.
“Had a really strong car at Kansas, had a really good car at Martinsville, and there’s no reason why we can’t go and have a shot to win this thing.”
Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2021 Stats: Two wins (Darlington, Las Vegas), 18 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes, 1502 laps led, 8.6 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 32 starts, two wins (2012, 2019), 15 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, 854 laps led, 10.8 average finish
Starting Position: Sixth
Why Hamlin Can Win: To say Hamlin is fired up this weekend would be an understatement. After his run-in with Alex Bowman last weekend at Martinsville, Hamlin has been embroiled in a firestorm of hate, but is he letting any of that get to him? Absolutely not.
Instead of letting the negativity bring him down, Hamlin is turning it into motivational fuel, ready to silence the doubters and finally bring home that elusive championship trophy.
Focusing on the 750-horsepower package that will be used at Phoenix, Hamlin has made it clear that he and his team are here to win. Whoever wins the title on Sunday is going to have to deal with the No. 11 team to make it happen.
What the Driver Says: “Everyone’s go-to is, you haven’t won a championship. There’s nothing else they can say. There’s just nothing else they can say.
“To me, I’m so motivated to go out there and show ’em what’s up. I think it’s fuel for me. It really is fuel for me. People don’t get in my head in a negative way. I turn it into positives, into motivation.
“Some people like to go in a hole and hide from it. I do not. I go at it head on. Anyone who’s around me knows, a lot of you in the media who have followed my career, when things go haywire or shit hits the fan, I usually come out swinging.
“We will come out swinging again.”
Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2021 Stats: Four wins (Phoenix, Martinsville, Darlington, Richmond), 12 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, 793 laps led, 12.3 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 31 starts, one win (March 2021), five top-five finishes, 13 top-10 finishes, two poles, 187 laps led, 15.4 average finish
Starting Position: 12th
Why Truex Can Win: The other three championship contenders all have their own story. There’s Larson, the regular season champion, Elliott, the defending series champion, and Hamlin, the fired-up driver looking to finally win his first championship. Then you have Truex, skating in under the radar, who could easily go out and steal the trophy away from the other three on Sunday.
Truex won at Phoenix earlier this season and without a doubt has been one of the strongest drivers on the shorter tracks, with additional wins at Martinsville, Darlington, and Richmond. The combination of Truex and crew chief James Small have been stout this year, and there is no reason why that won’t continue when the green flag drops.
What the Driver Says: “I always tell people, you need a million things to go right to win a race. Just one race, a million things. One of those goes wrong you’re probably not going to win or there’s a good chance you won’t win. We deal with that on a regular basis.
“But as it comes down to the championship, to your point, you don’t get to do this every year. There’s no guarantee that anybody is ever going to win a championship, let alone have the opportunity.
“They definitely mean more. They hurt more when they’re in this situation, when it’s — last year we didn’t get to come back and try to fix what we did in 2019 with the tire issue.
“I think you just relish the opportunity. You really understand what the opportunity is about, and it’s really a game of the odds, I think. The more times you’re in this, the better chance you have of winning one of them.
“For us, the last two we’ve been in we’ve finished second and probably had the best car. Maybe the odds are in our favor here to get our second one. Let’s hope.”