With the championship race officially here, here‘s a reminder: Stage points will not be awarded to the playoff drivers in alignment with official NASCAR season scoring rules. For instance, last year, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney tallied the most points, ahead of the Championship 4 drivers.
We‘ve made it to the season finale, and the Championship 4 drivers are spread throughout the starting lineup. Ross Chastain topped single-lap practice speed, while Joey Logano won the pole. Christopher Bell said the weekend hasn‘t started how the No. 20 team has planned and ranked 31st on 10-lap averages. Chase Elliott seemed relaxed and will start fifth. But there were many other drivers throughout the field that looked competitive.
Dustin Albino‘s race-day lineup:
Starter 1: Joey Logano
Starter 2: Chase Elliott
Starter 3: Kyle Larson
Starter 4: Christopher Bell
Starter 5: Kevin Harvick
Garage pick: Ross Chastain
NEXT IN LINE: Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, William Byron, Tyler Reddick
RISING: The strong postseason run for Chase Briscoe continued at Phoenix on Saturday, as the No. 14 Ford will start third in Sunday‘s race. Given Briscoe won the spring race in the desert, he‘s worth considering for your lineup.
Harrison Burton has had a challenging rookie season with a pair of top-10 finishes. But in the last month, he‘s made the final round of qualifying three times and will start a career-high sixth on Sunday. Because of his track record in 2022, it‘s obvious why you‘d avoid the No. 21 team, but do know he‘s run better as his first Cup year wraps up.
FALLING: The furthest back of the Championship 4 drivers in qualifying was Chastain in 25th. When asked by NBC Sports if he thought he could move forward quickly, he grinned. However, it‘s possible the No. 1 team doesn‘t crack the top 10 during the opening stage — nor does he have to; he only needs to finish ahead of three drivers — and that doesn‘t help your lineup. Still going to have him available in my garage just in case he has a strong car in the race.
It‘s been hard to get a grip on Bell this weekend. The No. 20 Toyota was the slowest Championship 4 driver in practice and was fair off on 10-lap average. It‘s worth noting that Bell didn‘t show flashy speed at either the Charlotte Roval or Martinsville last week and won both races to advance into the championship round.
Ross Chastain vs. Chase Elliott: Because these two are battling heads up for points, it‘s truly a tossup. Elliott has more experience in these pressure-packed scenarios, as it‘s his third consecutive Championship 4 race. Chastain has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The No. 9 Chevrolet seems more consistent with speed, but don‘t get caught off guard if Chastain soars through the field in the first stage.
Christopher Bell vs. Joey Logano: Logano has a certain swagger about him that makes me think he‘s the favorite for the championship. He said he believes he‘s been the favorite since the year began. Logano has the experience and multiple wins at Phoenix. He‘s the bet here, even though Bell has all the momentum in the world on his side.
Denny Hamlin vs. Ryan Blaney: In practice, Blaney ranked quickest on long-run speed. The No. 12 Ford will start second, as Hamlin starts back in 21st. If I had any starts for Blaney left, I‘d put him in my lineup over Harvick. He‘s worth using if you have him available.
Kyle Larson vs. Kyle Busch: The end of Kyle Busch‘s Joe Gibbs Racing tenure has been disappointing. Last weekend was arguably his worst race ever in the No. 18 Toyota. Larson has an owner‘s championship to compete for with Hendrick Motorsports, so he‘s the choice.