Checkered flag drops in Phoenix

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The tumultuous 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season comes to an end at Phoenix Raceway Sunday after a wild ride that saw the series halted two months because of a pandemic, and then re-starting it again May 17 amid groans from some in the media.

Somehow, perhaps magically, NASCAR got its 36 races in to satisfy the networks and get all the tracks, team owners, drivers, and crew members paid. In order to do so, sacrifices had to be made such as shortening each race weekend with no qualifying and no practice. Teams would just show up to the track, unload the car, and race.

Socializing also was cut to a minimum. And fans weren’t initially allowed back in until June, at a few places and it was only a couple hundred.

In order to keep the playoff dates intact, NASCAR had to cram together two races in a week. Racing on Wednesday or Thursday night was kind of cool. They also put two races into one weekend at Pocono, which was initially scheduled, but did the same for races at Dover and Michigan. They were running a season and learning pandemic protocols on the fly, implementing immediately, and it worked while the other sports leagues were watching from the sidelines.

NASCAR was the first sport back on live TV networks and there was something about it all that made me proud of the sport after going two months without anything. No work, either. But there was my good old buddy, NASCAR, helping me keep my sanity through self-quarantine.

So while Kevin Harvick was eliminated from the Championship 4 last week at Martinsville, he’ll always hold a special place in my memory for winning the first race back after the shutdown, May 17 at Darlington, a race more anticipated by me than any Daytona 500 after a cold winter. Three days later, NASCAR gave us another race at Darlington with Denny Hamlin winning. Those two drivers would be the underlying story of the summer with Harvick winning nine races and Hamlin winning seven, six after the shutdown.

Believe it or not, the 2020 NASCAR Cup season was my favorite seasons ever in any sport right there with UNLV basketball winning in 1990 and the Denver Broncos winning their first Super Bowl in 1998. Selfishly, I hate to see the season end Sunday, but all the teams need some rest after entertaining us all through the pandemic.

The final chapter of the season will be written Sunday at Phoenix with two Team Penske drivers, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, each looking to win their second Cup Championship while Hamlin and Chase Elliott will be looking for their first. The best finisher among those four will be the 2020 champ, but the last six Cup Champions have won the final race which had been at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2002.

The dynamics of the Phoenix having the last race held on the relatively flat 1-mile layout is that it changes the criteria we’ve used to handicap the championship race. It used to be that we’d look at all the results from other 1.5-mile tracks or using a similar race package.

This season, 20 races were run using the 550 horsepower package which Harvick and Hamlin used to win 11 of them. But the 750 hp package used on the smaller tracks wasn’t as good for those two drivers. Team Penske and Elliott had the edge.

You could argue that Elliott has the edge since he’s won the last two races using the 750 hp package, last week at Martinsville, and before that, it was the Charlotte Roval. He won the Daytona road course event and the All-Star non-points race at Bristol July. He also led the most laps (93) at Phoenix in March before finishing seventh, the last race before the shutdown which was won by Logano. Elliott’s best career Cup run at Phoenix was runner-up in 2017. In nine starts he has a 13th-place average finish.

Logano’s win was his second at Phoenix, but since 2017 his Phoenix record was on the downturn with finishes of 10th or worse in five straight until his ninth-place result last fall. In 23 starts he has a 14.3 average finish.

Keselowski has never won at Phoenix and has been 10th or worse in his last three after scoring a career-best runner-up in the fall of 2018. In the March race, he was really fast in his 11th-place finish. He won the second stage and led 82 laps giving up the lead to Logano with 24 laps to go.

He’s won three times this season using the 750 hp package. He led the most laps in each of the three wins, two of them which are critical to note for Sunday’s race.

If you’ve been reading my weekly column for a while, you know I like to group specific tracks together and in the case of Phoenix, I also use stats from the similar flat tracks at New Hampshire and Richmond. They all look different but the distances and flat nature require the set-ups to be similar. If a driver is good at one during a season, they’ll likely be good at the other. Keselowski led 184 laps at New Hampshire in an August win and led 192 laps at Richmond in a September win.

Last season, Hamlin had to win at Phoenix to advance to the Championship 4 and he did for his second career win there. In 30 Cup starts, he’s averaged an 11.2 finish that includes 13 top-fives.

The two wild cards in this race are going to Harvick and Kyle Busch. They don’t want to get in the way of the championship contenders, but they’ll have no problem bumping one of them out of the way to win. Harvick has a track record of nine wins and 1,662 laps led in 35 starts. Busch has three wins and nine of his last 10 there have been top-fives and has led 1,190 laps overall.

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