COLUMN: NASCAR Championship Preview

Reasons why each of the four will or won't take home the title

Sunday, after 35 races, 38 weeks and a lot of schedule shuffling, the NASCAR Championship Finale is finally here.

Some might not have thought this was possible in 2020. How it became a reality to salvage the season, I previously explained prior to the start of the playoffs

Last Sunday’s elimination race at Martinsville Speedway more than delivered on excitement and entertainment. Chase Elliott’s walk-off win, coupled with Kevin Harvick’s shocking elimination had social media buzzing well after the checkered flag flew.

Admittedly, the No. 4 team missing out on a chance at a title made this piece slightly harder to write. No one would’ve guessed Harvick could fail to advance after starting the Round of 8 a whopping 45 points above the cutoff line, but it happened. 

Just when it seems like things are certain, the playoffs prove once again to never assume anything is a lock, or that one could plan a future column around it. Still, there is a case on each of the final four drivers, detailing how they will or won’t take home the championship Sunday.


Joey Logano, No. 22 Team Penske Ford

Why He Wins:

Logano has the most career wins at Phoenix Raceway of the Championship Four alongside Denny Hamlin with two. On top of that, Logano won this year’s spring event at the track leading 60 of the final 92 laps to take the win. It was his second win in the first four races of the season, and the last event before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the regular season. 

He had a quiet summer and didn’t record another victory until three weeks ago at Kansas Speedway, giving him a chance for the championship. He was also in the top ten of both stages in the spring race, before capitalizing late.

Much like his 2018 season, Logano has proven the ability to show up when it matters most. A similar effort Sunday could result in a second cup in three years. 

Why He Won’t: 

Despite having two wins at the 1-mile desert oval, Logano also has four DNF’s in his career at Phoenix. That’s more than his other three championship competitors combined. 

It’s unlikely he or any of the championship four will fail to finish, but all previous finales under the current format were at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track with an extra half-mile of room and forgiveness.

Believing he does in fact end the race in one piece, his 14.3 average finish, and 91.3 driver rating are the lowest of the four eligible drivers in both categories. 


Chase Elliott, No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy

Why He Wins:

If you believe in momentum, no driver has more right now than Elliott. The most recent winner in the cup series with his victory at Martinsville, he has two wins in the last four races, the most of any driver since October.

Elliott led 93 laps in the spring at Phoenix, more than any other driver, but ultimately came home seventh. Being the youngest of the final four doesn’t mean much on this track. He may only have nine career starts at Phoenix and no wins, but his 105.3 driver rating is the best of the title bunch. 

As the most popular driver in the series, a championship would fan the flame of his already bright future in the sport.

Why He Won’t: 

Although he came through in the clutch last Sunday, championship pressure is real, as one of the other members of the final four knows all too well. This is Elliott’s first final four appearances, each of the other three has been here multiple times.

Elliott is not one for emotion, if he has nerves, you won’t be able to tell. However it’s not the driver of the No. 9 car that concerns me, it’s the team. His pit crew almost cost him last week with a penalty that ended up being overturned. They are also the first Chevy team to make the final round since Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 squad in 2016, who ended up winning the title.

Luck also has to be on his side. Elliott finished second eight times in his career before notching his first win in 2018. Many of those races he could’ve, and should’ve won, yet somehow did not. The same can be said of several races earlier this year. He had the good fortune last week, but he’ll need it to stick around for a bit longer to win it all. 


Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Team Penske Ford

Why He Wins:

With Kevin Harvick out, Keselowski is now one of the favorites to win the championship. The pressure is not a concern. He won the 2012 Championship holding off Jimmie Johnson, who at the time was a year removed from winning five consecutive cups. 

Keselowski, like Elliott, had speed in the spring race. Keselowski won stage two and led 92 laps before finishing 11th after a few late cautions and restarts. 

His biggest advantage is that the 750 Horsepower package is being used Sunday. This combination has led to three of Keselowski’s four wins this season, one in dominating fashion earlier in the playoff race at Richmond. In fact, the team is using that very same car, if it’s as good as it was that night, the No. 2 team will have their second championship by Sunday night.

Why He Won’t:

There’s not a lot to go against him other than the fact he’s never won a race at Phoenix in 22 starts. In the seven-year history of the championship four, the champion has won the final race every time. 

While he could win the cup simply by finishing ahead of the other three and not winning, it’s not a likely option. 

Team Penske swapped around their crew chiefs prior to the start of the 2020 season. Jeremy Bullins moved from the No. 12 to the No. 2 pit box to work with Keselowski this year. If they’re somehow not on the same page yet, they better be today.


Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Why He Wins:

By far the most overdue championship contender is Hamlin. Many wonder if this is finally the year Denny delivers in the finale. After winning six times last season and falling short, Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart improved this season with seven wins, the most of the final four.

Seemingly chasing Kevin Harvick for the points lead all season, the No. 11 team survived Martinsville, and the No. 4 team didn’t. With what appeared to be his biggest challenger out of the hunt, Hamlin has no reason not to take advantage. 

He won this race last year in the fall. The difference being that it was the penultimate event in 2019, this year it’s the finale. Hamlin’s 11.3 average finish is the highest of the championship drivers, and his two-track wins tie Logano for the most among the final four. You never know how many chances you get at the championship, maybe Sunday is finally his time. 

Why He Won’t:

Hamlin has come close before and found a way to lose it. Last year he took the lead at Homestead before adding too much tape on pit road and overheated his engine. He made the first-ever final four in 2014 and didn’t win it either. 

In 2010, he was much younger and less experienced, but entered the final race ahead of Jimmie Johnson in points. He spun himself out early and finished 14th, bending to the pressure and handing the No. 48 team their fifth straight title. 

Honestly, his 2020 playoff run hasn’t been great either, his two top fives are the fewest of the final four. He won a controversial Talladega race, but other than that has slept walked through the postseason, coasting on his regular-season advantage, much like Harvick did. If Hamlin can’t wake up for Phoenix he will continue to be regarded as one of the greatest drivers without a championship.