What to Watch: NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·11 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway
(⏰ 3 p.m. ET | 📺 NBC, TSN5 | 📻 MRN, SiriusXM)

Everything you need to know for Sunday’s season finale, the 36th points-paying NASCAR Cup Series event of the 2021 season.

1. Everything starts with Kyle Larson this weekend. The No. 5 driver’s career year has had championship written all over it nearly from the jump, and a title for the season’s best driver seems like the most fitting conclusion. Anything can happen in the Championship 4, however, and the 1B counterpart to his 1A, Denny Hamlin, might not be in the same ballpark wins-wise to Larson (nine to Hamlin’s two), but the No. 11 driver has only one fewer top 10 while owning a better average finish (8.6 to 9.3). That’s not to mention the other two competitors just happen to be the reigning champ Chase Elliott and the 2017 title winner and four-time 2021 victor, Martin Truex Jr. It’s certainly Larson’s to lose, but that is a very distinct possibility given the level of excellence across the board in the Championship 4. | Why Larson will win | Debating Larson’s chances

2. Though unable to match his teammate’s torrid pace in 2021, Elliott has been every bit as strong as in his championship season. He’s on pace to better his average finish (11.5) from a year ago (11.7), already having one more lead lap finish with one race to go, as well. Yet, with so much of the spotlight on Larson and Hamlin, it feels like he’s being slept on a bit. That’s probably in one ear and out the other for Elliott, who has shown a remarkable ability in his young career to block out the noise, put his helmet on and just grip it and rip it, regardless of what people think. The only thing that matters now for Elliott, who used some form of the word “focus” 15 times in his Championship 4 Media Day presser, is execution for he and his No. 9 team. As the defending winner of both the championship and this race, that level of precision — along with the extra sleep he’s now getting since the Atlanta Braves wrapped their World Series run — should worry the other three. | Why Elliott will win | Debating Elliott’s chances

3. Experience and seasoning count, though. Prior to this season, Elliott and Larson had combined for only one Championship 4 appearance. This marks Truex’s fifth Championship 4 berth, and he was extremely close to making it last year as well (led 129 laps at Martinsville before finishing 22nd). The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team still has some of the bones of the old No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team, and the championship roots run deep within that squad. That doesn’t necessarily equate to being the fastest car on Sunday, but that level of experience is absolutely something teams would very much prefer they have than do not. Truex Jr. is the definition of steady veteran and it’s no accident he continues to be on that stage being introduced as a Championship 4 driver ahead of the season finale year after year. | Why Truex will win | Debating Truex’s chances

4. But it all might come down to Denny. Seemingly involved in every significant story line in some way this season — like the fact that he started a new Cup team as an owner and won a playoff race with said team … while also going on to compete in Championship 4 with another team and then some other thing that happened at Martinsville — it would be apropos that this season be the one Hamlin gets that major asterisk taken off his Hall of Fame resume and wins his first title. His dominance over the last half-decade have more than sealed the deal on that front, and yet that bare spot on his trophy shelf is a continual focal point. On top of carrying the load on the entertainment side of things for much of the year, this season offers as good of a chance for him to complete his final task as any, if not better. His previously mentioned average finish is on pace for a career high, and he’ll likely break his previous top 10 best (24) and tie his high in top fives (19). Hamlin thrives in his self-proclaimed “chaos,” which he’ll see plenty of on Sunday. And it’s because he’s the calm in the storm. | Why Hamlin will win | Debating Hamlin’s chances

5. But what if one of them doesn’t win the race? Well, one of them will still walk away with the big trophy, it just means there will be another driver celebrating off to the side with a smaller one. We’ve yet to see this happen in the Cup Series, but it’s always on the table. Brad Keselowski will be plenty motivated to score one last victory for his long time team owner Roger Penske before taking on his new multi-dimensional role at Roush Fenway Racing. He narrowly missed making it to the Championship 4, and led practice Friday — topping all four title-eligible drivers — so he could be one to watch. Kevin Harvick‘s history at Phoenix needs no introduction, and the “Cactus King” will be doing everything in his power to avoid his first winless season since 2009. Expect the other two Penske drivers (Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano) to be strong as well, along with the other two drivers from each Championship 4 organization (last week’s winner Alex Bowman and William Byron for Hendrick and Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell for Gibbs.) It’s been a wild season, and Sunday is setting up as an instant classic that’ll be must-see TV from start to finish. | Keselowski tops practice

Getty Images
Getty Images

Race-day info

Where: Phoenix Raceway, located in Avondale, Arizona
Green flag: 3:34 p.m. ET
Grand Marshals: Commercial Manager Arizona, Anheuser-Busch, Matt Lawler; Vice President of Sports & Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, John Mount; Vice President Partnerships & Activations, Xfinity, Matt Lederer; Claims Assistant Vice President, GEICO Tucson Office, Sidy Dieng
Flyover: F-16 Fighting Falcons, 69th Fighter Squadron, 944th Fighter Wing, Luke Air Force Base
TV/Radio: NBC/NBC Sports App/Peacock, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Forecast: Mostly sunny, with a high near 88. Calm wind becoming southwest around 5 mph in the morning, according to NOAA.gov
Race Distance: 312 laps, 312 miles
Stages: 75 | 190 | 312
Pit-road speed: 45 mph
Caution car speed: 50 mph
Race purse: $10,053,801
Phoenix 101: Get the full lowdown
Starting lineup: See the full lineup

Pit-stall assignments: See who is pitting where | Expert breaks down pit selections

Championship 4 coverage

2021 Championship 4 Media Day was one for the ages — get caught up on the Championship 4 quickly.

• Outta here:
Three Championship 4 teams see car chiefs ejected | Read more
• Not over it:
Denny Hamlin still worked up about Martinsville | See what he said
• Tunnel vision:
No. 11 more focused on championship process than outcome | Watch video
• Recency bias: Chase Elliott brings 2020 experience to quest for second straight title | Read more
• More excited than nervous:
Championship butterflies have eluded Kyle Larson — so far | Read more
• Guiding principles:
Rarely rattled, crew chief Cliff Daniels is the No. 5 team’s steady hand |Read more
• ‘Pretty special’:
Kyle Larson gets candid when discussing his remarkable run with Hendrick | Watch the video
• Smooth as they come:
Martin Truex Jr. relaxed, confident heading into season finale at Phoenix | Read more
• Doing it right in the desert:
Phoenix goes all-out with NASCAR Championship Weekend publicity blitz | Read more
• Who said what: Best quotes from Championship 4 Media Day | See what they said
• Larson fastest among four in practice:
Keselowski tops Phoenix practice; No. 5 paces Championship 4 | Full results
• Two in a row:
Drivers who won consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles | Read more
• Who’s made it before:
All-time Championship 4 appearances by driver | See the list

Fast facts

Hard-hitting, race-relevant statistics, brought to you by the experts at Racing Insights.

Denny Hamlin is the only driver to make the playoffs more than 10 times who has not won a championship.
Three of the last four Phoenix races were won by Championship 4 drivers — all but Kyle Larson.
• The two organizations in the Championship 4 have won eight of the nine playoff races.
• Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won the last six elimination races dating back to the 2020 Round of 12.
• The last season that two playoff races were won by non-playoff eligible drivers prior to 2021 was in 2015.

Catch the pack

Read up on all the headlines from the week leading up to Sunday’s race.

• End of an era: Brad Keselowski says goodbye, thank you to Penske in touching video | Watch video
• Start ’em up: NASCAR announces start times and networks for 2022 season | Read more
New digs: Matt McCall to serve as Brad Keselowski‘s crew chief at Roush in 2022 | Read more
• Substitute on the box: Tyler Reddick’s crew chief missing Phoenix due to COVID protocols | Read more
• @nascarcasm poetry:
An ode to the eliminated | See the gallery
• Will they, won’t they: @nascarcasm on each Championship 4 driver’s chances | Read more
• ‘Hacking’ Pennies: Alex Bowman talks to Corey LaJoie about Martinsville | Watch the clip

Race-day staples

Ads Fantasyfastlane Hero
Ads Fantasyfastlane Hero

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

• Power Rankings: Does it all come down to Denny Hamlin? | Latest rankings
• Preview Show:
Which driver will take the trophy? | Watch the show
• Paint Scheme Preview:
Championship weekend looks | See them all
• Longform: Like a winner, Chip Ganassi‘s two-decade run in NASCAR leaves lasting legacy | Read more
• So long: End-of-season goodbyes: 2021 edition | See more
• Fantasy Fastlane:
Ride Willy B’s momentum at Phoenix | Top plays, sleepers

Get in on the action

Think you know NASCAR? Put your mettle to the test with gaming, fantasy.

• What are the odds?: Betting odds for Phoenix | See them here
• Making a title bet:
PJ Walsh breaks down his early selection | See the analysis
• NASCAR betting:
Is market overextended on Kyle Larson for the title? | Read more
• Sports betting 101:
Picking race winners at Phoenix | Watch more
• Jackpot Races:
One final shot at $25,000 in 2021 | Watch for more
• Fantasy advice:
How to balance Championship 4, stage points | Watch for more
• Talking playoffs: How Fantasy Live game works for the postseason | Read more
• On the grid:
How the Cup Series Playoffs Grid Challenge works | Read more
• No risk, big reward: Take a shot at winning cash prizes with the free-to-play Jackpot Races app | Hit the jackpot
• Play it LIVE:
Full guide to 2021 NASCAR Fantasy Live game | Get the FAQ

Memories from Phoenix

Tbt 2007 Gordon Phx 922 Crop
Tbt 2007 Gordon Phx 922 Crop

NASCAR heads to the final race of the season at Phoenix Raceway, so let’s take a look back at some track history.

• Ah, the memories: Memorable moments at Phoenix | See the list
• Duel in the desert:
Jeff Gordon ties Dale Earnhardt’s 76 career wins in 2007 | Watch the full race
• Victory Lane:
All-time wins at Phoenix | See the list
• One year ago:
Chase Elliott cashes in on first title at Phoenix | Full race recap

Say what?

Notable quotes from the Championship 4 heading into Sunday’s race.

Meg Oliphant | Getty Images
Meg Oliphant | Getty Images

“I hope this is the new normal. I would love to win nine races a year for the rest of my life. I don’t know. It’s all about opportunity. I feel like I’ve been blessed with a great opportunity, with a great team, with Cliff Daniels leading it. Yeah, I mean, I think timing, too, is important. Yeah, I mean, it’s been really good. I’m glad that we’ve been able to take advantage of it.” – Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

“Just focusing on the right things. I’ve said it a few times already, but if it’s not something that’s going to make us go faster, it really doesn’t deserve our attention right now. That was really our mindset last year, and I feel like we proved a lot to ourselves and just what we can accomplish when we pull the rope in the same direction and focus on things that matter. I feel like that’s where our head is at, too.” – Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

“How do I get up every morning and take my kids to school at 7:30? How do I go to 23XI and work for a couple days in the middle of the week during a Playoff run? I live in chaos. My life is chaos. I thrive under chaos. Honestly, you can ask Kyle. The more shit is stirred up around me, the shore I come at it. I don’t mind things like that. … To me it’s fuel. Like, I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation there.” – Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

“I guess try to focus on what really matters, and luckily haven’t been in any confrontations here lately. It’s always good to not have enemies when it comes to a race like this. Not that they’ll come into play. I don’t see anybody doing anything out of control this weekend. I think everybody understands that it’s the championship race, it’s the final four, and I don’t think anyone will do anything silly. But I guess you just — less enemies makes it a little bit easier if you get back in traffic or something that guys will show you a little bit more respect I would say.” — Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota