The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have come down to four names: Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano. The goal for Sunday’s Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceay is simple: finish ahead of the other three and the championship is yours.
Each of the four vary in background, with Elliott and Hamlin entering Phoenix seeking their first Cup championships. On the other hand, Keselowski and Logano, team-mates at Team Penske, are in the hunt for their second titles.
Chase Elliott (start: first)
The youngest driver in the Championship Round at 24 years of age (tied with Logano in 2014 for the youngest Cup final round qualifier since the elimination format’s introduction that year), Elliott is enjoying his best season to date. After scoring three wins each in 2018 and 2019, he exceeded that with four in 2020, while another top-ten finish would give him a career-best twenty-two on the year. His fourteen top fives is already a career high.
Elliott began his fifth Cup season with a wave of bad luck. At the first Las Vegas race, he won the first two stages. Two weeks later in Phoenix, he won the pole and led a race-high 93 laps before hitting the wall and being forced to settle for seventh. When the season resumed two months later in Darlington, he found himself chasing down Hamlin for the win until he was turned by Kyle Busch. One middle finger and a Truck win over Busch later, his misfortunes continued in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte when a spin by team-mate William Byron led to him pitting from the lead prior to overtime, ending his hopes of winning.
He would rebound a few days later by winning the Charlotte weeknight race, but drama took him out of a second straight trip to Victory Lane when he wrecked with Logano while fighting for the lead late at Bristol. Elliott would return to the short track in July and score his first All-Star Race victory. He scored an addition regular season win at the first (and, for now, only) Daytona road course race, and he went into the postseason as the fifth seed.
The playoffs began with another shortcoming when his duel with Martin Truex Jr. for the win in the postseason opener at Darlington ended with the two hitting the wall. A pair of top tens advanced him to the Round of 12, where he then punched his ticket to the next round by once again flexing his road course prowess with a victory at the Charlotte Roval, his fourth straight win on such tracks. Despite being below the cut line entering the final Round of 8 race at Martinsville, he took the win to qualify for his first Championship Round.
Elliott will seek Hendrick Motorsports‘ thirteenth Cup driver’s title and first since Jimmie Johnson in 2016; Johnson, set to run his final race as a full-time NASCAR driver, will be honoured by Elliott with a special paint scheme.
“Jimmie has been such a great friend for me, a great role model I think for just not me,” Elliott said on Thursday. “The guy I feel like is a great example in a lot of different ways.
“I think his message throughout the week is just do the things that kind of make you you. Now is not the time to try to reinvent the wheel or do things different, change who you are. Just go about your thing has you always have. That’s the kind of process that has led us to this point. There’s no need in changing who you are now. It’s one of those things that probably aren’t going to do you any good.”
If history is any indicator, Elliott has some trends going his way: besides his near-win in the spring, his father Bill won the 1988 championship, the same year that the Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers respectively won the NBA Finals and World Series. Aptly, both teams won those titles again in 2020. Elliott’s last NASCAR championship, in 2014 in the now-Xfinity Series, also came in a #9 car, while he clinched said title at Phoenix (though during its status as the penultimate race).
“People ask that a lot, right? I feel like it’s so hard,” Elliott added, in response to questions on how winning a championship would feel. “I just remember getting the question of, ‘What is it going to feel like when you win that first race? What is that going to be like? How cool is that going to be to you?’
“I always had a really hard time answering that because I’d never done it before. So I don’t know. I think that’s the same answer now. Until you achieve a moment like that, that obviously is very meaningful to you, I think it’s really hard to put a stamp of what it means or how it feels or the emotions that come with it. I think I’d be speaking out of turn to really give you an answer because I don’t know. I don’t know.
“I hope that one day I can figure it out, but right now I don’t know. We’ll give it our best shot to find out.”
Joey Logano (start: second)
Logano has developed a knack for reaching the Championship Round in even-numbered years. In 2015 and 2019, he was eliminated after the Round of 8, while he missed the playoffs entirely in 2017. In 2014, 2016, and 2018, he finished fourth, second, and won the title.
He entered 2020 with a new crew chief in former Keselowski head man Paul Wolfe after a Penske crew shuffle. The year began on a high note for the 2018 champion as he won two of the four races—Las Vegas and Phoenix, coincidentally both races that Elliott had in the bag before troubles snagged him—prior to COVID-19. However, as the season resumed in May, this was followed by a long dry spell as he failed to return to Victory Lane for the rest of the regular season. Nevertheless, he was second in points for much of the early stretch and was fourth entering the playoffs.
Two third-place finishes and a near-top ten advanced him from the Round of 16. The Round of 12, on the other hand, proved to not be as kind as he finished fourteenth at Las Vegas and wrecked out at Talladega. However, his consistency and misfortunes for the rest of the field kept him safely above the cut line as he rebounded with a runner-up finish behind Elliott at the Roval.
Logano would be the first to clinch a seat in the final four by winning the Round of 8 opener at Kansas. With a tenth and third in the next two races, he enters Phoenix with four straight top tens. Interestingly, should he win the race (and ultimately the title), he would equal his top ten and top five count from 2019 at twelve and twenty-one, but with double the wins at four.
His three wins going into the final round are also the same that he ended his 2018 title run with. Various parallels can be drawn between that year and 2020: in both seasons, he lagged through the summer stretch without a victory before heating up in the later stages of the playoffs. Like in 2020, he reached the final round by winning the first race of the Round of 8.
“I think every year has its own personality that it takes on. Honestly, I feel like this year feels a lot like 2018,” Logano commented in his Thursday interview. “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.”
Brad Keselowski (start: third)
It has been eight years since Keselowski last hoisted a Cup Series trophy, and he will seek to do it again on Sunday. 2020 will be his second time in the Championship Round and the first since 2017 after finishing eighth in the last two seasons.
2020 marked Keselowski’s first year with Jeremy Bullins on the pit box after spending much of his Penske tenure with Wolfe. After kicking off the year with a wreck in the Daytona 500, he climbed into the top ten in the standings before the season pause. When racing resumed, he was the pole sitter for the first race back at Darlington. During the late spring stretch, he scored two victories courtesy of Elliott’s woes, escaping Charlotte with the Coca-Cola 600 win and slipping by Elliott and Logano’s incident at Bristol to win there.
While he hung around in the top five in points during the summer, he did not win again until New Hampshire in August. Prior to a wreck at Michigan 2, he was riding a six-race top-ten streak, and he would later sign an extension with Penske. Keselowski began the postseason as the third seed with nineteen top tens, the second most among drivers.
A strong final stage and win at Richmond placed him in the Round of 12. Although he failed to finish in the top ten in any of the round’s races, he made the Round of 8, where he rebounded with two fourths and a sixth.
Keselowski enters the final race with twenty-three top tens, his most since 2015 (twenty-five) and tied with his 2012 amount. A win (and therefore the title) would equate him with his total from his championship campaign.
“I would say I feel pretty darned good,” said the 36-year-old. “You know, I’ve had different conversations internally this week than I had the last time I was in the Championship 4, that at their most basic level come from a high level of confidence. There’s nothing guaranteed, but I’m very confident we’re going to go there and be very competitive and have a great shot to win the race.
“That’s what I can guarantee is that we’ll be there, we’ll be focused, my team is going to bring a great car, and the chips will fall where they will from there, but our preparation and all that will — it’s already at a very high level, and I feel good about that.”
While he does not consider himself a “favourite” in betting terms, he noted he feels “great about the car we’re bringing. This car and this tire combination we’ve won the last two races. There’s some differences between Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix that maybe negate some of those advantages, but that’s okay. My team has worked really hard, and I’ve prepared extra hard to be ready for the moment. Time will tell.”
Although he has never won at Phoenix in the Cup Series (he won twice in the Xfinity Series) and finished outside the top ten in the spring race, he won Stage #2 and his 82 laps led in that event were the second most behind Elliott.
“I’ve been in position at Phoenix a number of times,” he added. “Some of them I’ve messed up, to be quite honest. I feel like we’re due. I feel due to win at Phoenix. Certainly this year represents one of the best opportunities.”
Denny Hamlin (start: fourth)
When Kevin Harvick was eliminated from the playoffs despite dominating the standings for nearly the entire season, fans expressed their anger at the system. On the other hand, some justice was at least granted in the form of Hamlin making it into his second straight Championship Round and third since its début.
While Harvick led the Cup Series in wins, Hamlin was right behind with seven, one shy of his career best in 2010. His first two wins of 2020 came in dramatic fashion: he beat out Ryan Blaney to the line ahead of a flipping Ryan Newman to win his third Daytona 500, and he watched in his mirror as his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Busch took out Elliott before rain shortened the Toyota 500 at Darlington. During the 600, a piece of tungsten ballast fell out of his car, resulting in the suspension of his crew chief Chris Gabehart for four races; when he returned, the two were back in Victory Lane in the lightning-plaged Homestead race.
More victories in the summer took place at Pocono 2, Kansas, and Dover 1, which enabled him to tie his 2019 win count of six even before the regular season’s conclusion. When the playoffs began, he was unsurprisingly the second seed behind Harvick.
Despite a poor Round of 16 in which he never finished better than thirteenth, he bounced back by leading the most laps at Las Vegas en route to a third-place finish, followed by a controversial win at Talladega to clinch a Round of 8 berth. In that round’s cut-off race at Martinsville, Hamlin and Harvick both entered with their playoff hopes uncertain despite their domination; while Harvick was ultimately eliminated, Hamlin squeezed in with an eleventh-place finish. While that run also sparked controversy when radio communications surfaced in which JGR team-mate Erik Jones was ordered not to pass Hamlin to keep hiis chances alive, NASCAR did not take action and Hamlin will enter Phoenix without any weight.
Hamlin, who has qualified for the postseason every year except for an injury-ravaged 2013, has won twice at Phoenix in 2012 and the 2019 fall race. He has never won a Cup title but has come close with a runner-up finish in 2010; a win on Sunday will allow him to tie his career best of eight victories that year.
“It’s going to take execution and a fast car,” Hamlin stated. “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.
“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.”
“[…] When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds, and you’ve put yourself — it’s more of, to me, an idea of your season and how it’s gone. When I look at the Final Four, every one of these guys are worthy. I don’t think anyone faked their way through these playoffs when it comes to the competition that we’re going to be up against. It’s a very worthy four, but certainly I think that our goal is always to make the Final Four. It’s never to actually win the championship. That’s just a very hard goal, considering it’s just one race and there’s so many X factors that — you can be perfect. Usually when you’re perfect, you determine your own outcome, but in racing you can be perfect and there can be a crash in front of you, and you’re done. It wasn’t your fault, your team did everything perfectly, so you have to kind of gauge — you can’t just put all your eggs in a last-race championship basket of whether your season was a success or not.”