Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

35 races down, one to go.

Sunday afternoon, the NASCAR Cup Series will hit the track at Phoenix Raceway for the Season Finale 500 to bring the 2020 season to a close and crown a champion.

After being held at Homestead-Miami Speedway from 2002 to 2019, the championship race moved to the Arizona desert starting this season, giving the four drivers competing for the title a whole new challenge in their pursuit of the Bill France Cup.

While the focus of the race will be on the Championship 4, it is worth noting that Sunday’s race will mark the end of an era, with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson running his last race in the No. 48 car before moving on to INDYCAR, crew chief Chad Knaus calling his last race atop the pit box before moving into a leadership role at Hendrick Motorsports, and Clint Bowyer running for the final time in the No. 14 car at Stewart-Haas Racing before heading to the TV booth in 2021.

” It’s been an amazing journey and one that I could have never dreamed of,” Johnson said. “To be here at the end of what has been a crazy year, going out on my terms, is really special. I’ve had the great support of Hendrick Motorsports, Ally, Cliff Daniels and my team. So many people have been there for me, especially my incredible family and friends. I’m happy. I’m in a great head space. Will it hit me in Phoenix? I’m sure it will, but I’m glad I will have my loved ones there to celebrate all we have accomplished and toast to the future.

“I don’t know that it has really set in just yet that this will be my final race as a crew chief,” Knaus said. “Honestly, I’ve been trying to keep myself really busy. Every time I think about it I start to get pretty sad, so I’ve been staying as busy as I can. I’m sure that when we get to the end of the race Sunday that it’s going to be a tough moment for me and for my brother Jimmie (Johnson). Obviously, it’s going to be tough to walk away from this full time on the crew chief level. It will ultimately be a good thing. It’s a good opportunity for me and it’s a great opportunity for the No. 24 team and for Rudy (Fugle) to really get started on their future.”

“I never thought I would have this success,” said Bowyer. “I honestly was hoping to make a living racing. I can say that, and I think that’s a fair goal, but did I ever in a million years think that it would lead to all this? No way. Here is how I look at it – for the last few years, I have been representing Ford Motor Company, for crying out loud. For most of my career growing up, I couldn’t afford a Ford engine. I have made some incredible friendships along the way that will last my entire lifetime.

“Things always change and there’s a new bunch of kids who will come in and take up our places. We’ve had a great run, now it’s time to turn it over to someone else.”

By the Numbers

What: Season Finale 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 36 of 36

Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)

When: Sunday, November 8

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 2020 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 13th, 60 laps led)

November 2019 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota (Started third, 143 laps led)

Tale of the Tape – How the Championship 4 Stacks Up:

Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford

2020 Stats: Four wins (Charlotte, Bristol, Loudon, Richmond), 12 top-five finishes, 23 top-10 finishes, 936 laps led, 10.3 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: 22 starts, 0 wins, six top-five finishes, 10 top-10 finishes, 248 laps led, 13.5 average finish

Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion, makes his second appearance in the Championship 4 and first since 2017 after securing his spot with a fourth-place finish last week at Martinsville.

Though Keselowski has never won at Phoenix, he has run well at the track in the past. In the most recent race at the track in March, Keselowski was involved in crash on lap 64, but battled back to win the second stage, leading 82 laps, and finishing 11th.

“I think like any team, you go through ups and downs throughout a year and we’ve had some great ups,” Keselowski said. “We’ve won four races.  Before the playoffs had started we’d won three.  Were we as dominant as we want to be?  No, we weren’t.  You look at the things that Kevin Harvick did mid-season they were pretty phenomenal.  He deserves a lot of credit for it.

“I think there were a lot of people at that point in the season ready to start engraving the trophy, and as you can tell, the way things ended up playing out, it’s not that simple.

“You know, the way the playoff format is designed, it’s meant to not give any free passes, even though there are teams that have performed really well for the majority of the season.

“With that said, our team is motivated.  They’re hungry.  I’m looking at a group of people, and I think I’m the only one that’s ever won a Cup championship on the entire team lineup.  Three of my guys that go over the wall come from my truck team, and I’m super excited for them.  I’ve been with them and helped them from kind of day one when they had never pitted a race car before and now here they are competing for a Cup championship.  That just gives me butterflies deep down inside.”

Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

2020 Stats: Four wins (Charlotte, Daytona Road Course, Charlotte Roval, Martinsville), 14 top-five finishes, 21 top-10 finishes, 1094 laps led, 12.0 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: Nine starts, 0 wins, two top-five finishes, five top-10 finishes, 249 laps led, 13.0 average finish

Making his first appearance in the Championship 4 after a walk-off win last week at Martinsville, the Hendrick Motorsports hotshoe will be looking to carry that momentum right into Phoenix and end the night by adding a Cup Series title to his trophy case.

The 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion has yet to win at Phoenix on the Cup level, but in the March race at the track, sat on the pole and led 93 laps before eventually finishing seventh when the checkered flag flew.

“This is a moment you have to enjoy because you don’t know with your last race win is, you don’t know when your last day is, when the last Championship 4 is for you, all of the above,” Elliott said.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the whole moment and make the most of whatever Sunday brings, put all the emphasis and preparation in the things that are going to give us the best chance on Sunday.  To me that’s my preparation for certain situations and probably most importantly the right decisions on the car to get our car balance as close as we can to start the race.  All my emphasis is there, and just trying to enjoy and embrace this time, make the most of it.”

Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

2020 Stats: Seven wins (Daytona 500, Darlington, Homestead, Pocono, Kansas, Dover, Talladega), 17 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 1083 laps led, 9.5 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: 30 starts, two wins (2012, 2019), 13 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, 821 laps led, 11.3 average finish

While Joe Gibbs Racing only has one driver in the Championship 4 compared to having three last year, the team has one of the best drivers in 2020 vying for the title, with Hamlin scoring the second-most wins this season, falling just short of Kevin Harvick’s series best tally of nine wins.

One year ago, Hamlin won at Phoenix to secure his place in the championship finale at Homestead, but with a different aero package this season, the notes gained from that win won’t help a whole lot.

In addition, Hamlin didn’t get a ton of worthwhile track time when the Cup Series last visited Phoenix in March after getting involved in a Lap 64 crash, which caused heavy right-front damage to his car. Hamlin would eventually finish the day in 20th.

Despite all that, Hamlin remains confident that this will be the year he finally breaks through and scores the Cup championship that has eluded him over the years.

“No guarantees, so I can’t tell you why,” Hamlin said. “But I’ll let you know after the race is over why we won.  But it’s going to take execution and a fast car.  Those are the two things that you’re going to have to do to win.  I think it’s going to — will take a win to win it all.

“You know, I thought I was in a good position last year and things just didn’t work out, right, so there’s no givens.  I don’t think there’s any favorites.  I view all my competition equally, that they’re all dangerous in their own different ways.

“This one is a tough one to handicap.  From my perspective, I’m a numbers guy, I like the law of averages.  If I just keep putting myself in that Final Four, eventually things will fall my way.”

Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford

2020 Stats: Three wins (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Kansas), 11 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 814 laps led, 12.1 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: 23 starts, two wins (2016, 2020), five top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, 449 laps led, 14.3 average finish

Of the four drivers battling it out for the title, Logano has his history at Phoenix on his side, having won at the track back in March after holding off Kevin Harvick in a thrilling overtime finish and banking a pair of top-10 finishes at the track in 2019.

Should he be able to repeat that performance on Sunday, Logano could walk away with his second title in the past three years.

“I think every year has its own personality that it takes on,” Logano said. “Honestly, I feel like this year feels a lot like 2018.  It’s actually kind of funny because I think about 2018 where we had not the best summer months, then we kind of picked it up as the Playoffs started.  Won Martinsville, the first race of the third round, which set us up to race for a championship in Miami that year.

“It’s funny, I brought this up to my guys, I don’t know, a month and a half or so before the Playoffs started.  I said, Hey, you never know, you got to keep fighting.  You never know when the tides are going to turn, the next thing you know you’re up there in contention to win every week, also race for a championship.

“We went from in the summer months searching for a direction to make our car faster, to being in contention to win.  Now in my eyes, like I said in 2018, feeling like you’re the favorites by winning the first race in the third round.  I honestly feel that way again.

“Interesting how it’s kind of lining up to be the same.  Hopefully it lines up to be the same all the way to the end.  A lot of things can happen between now and then.  I like our chances.  I like where we’re at.  We’ll go out there to Phoenix and give it a shot.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.