With the championship four having been finally set in stone, NASCAR’s ever-devoted fans were more than prepared to witness the playoff finale at Phoenix this past Sunday.
After kicking the season off at the L.A. Coliseum, Cup Series drivers closed out the round of eight at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. While Penske driver Joey Logano had already ensured his spot in the final four, the Connecticut native still put in a great showing in preparation for next week’s high-stakes affair, coming across the line in sixth.
His teammate Ryan Blaney, who had been competing for a spot in the final four, was not as fortunate as his only way into the finale was via a win. Blaney’s choice to put on the last caution rather than stay out and take first place came back to bite him, as his in-car radio showed evidence of tightness in his steering that ultimately deterred the 12 car from grabbing a win. Joe Gibbs racing driver Christopher Bell dominated the race following the final caution en route to a win that qualified him for the championship race.
Bell’s teammate Denny Hamlin was unfortunately a part of one of the most mind-blowing finishes in NASCAR history at Martinsville, finishing sixth after a Hail Mary ride by Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain and the 1 car. Chastain, who had been running in 10th coming into the third turn of the track, decided to floor it along the outside wall rather than braking. The move looked straight out of a video game, with the hull of his red and black machine careening along the SAFER barrier as he blistered past multiple drivers in his immediate view.
Chastain eventually surfaced on the exit of turn four level with Hamlin, before he blew by him and beat the FedEx crew by a nose. The highlight went viral instantly, with critics on either side defending or railing against the gutsy move. Chastain didn’t seem to care much in his post-race interview, though.
“Played a lot of NASCAR 2005 on the GameCube with my brother growing up. You can get away with it. I never knew if it would actually work,” Chastain said.
The move was necessary for Chastain to beat out Hamlin and the Trackhouse team. By placing above Hamlin, Chastain was able to move on to the championships based on points.
As a result, Chastain has an opportunity to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship after partaking in and contributing to one of the most confusing and insane seasons in the history of the sport.
Chase Elliott, who made his way into the playoffs on the back of an unbelievably dominant regular season, is certainly a favorite to win the championship for his Hendrick Motorsports team. Hendrick came off of a Cup Series title last season on the back of Kyle Larson’s exceptional driving, nearly having two cars in the final four with William Byron’s 24 machine just barely missing the cut line.
WHO’S THE FAVORITE?
If we were to judge the potential victor of this race based on the finish from last season in the desert, Elliott would be the pick to win. In 2021 Elliott finished fifth in Phoenix, the highest of any of the current championship drivers. Bell and Logano finished ninth and 11th respectively, but Bell has improved tremendously in the course of a year and Logano looks much more hungry than he was in previous seasons. Chastain had the lowest finish of the group, crossing the line in 14th. Just like Bell though, Chastain has improved tenfold over the course of the year.
Ultimately, it looked as if Logano’s experience was not going to be enough to best the youthful consistency of NASCAR’s favorite driver, as Elliott was primed to take home his second Cup Series championship. Early on in the third stage of the season finale the Hendrick driver was spun by Chastain and sent into the wall, effectively ending his chances of winning the title. Bell and Logano battled throughout the final portion of the race as the two seemed unstoppable all day.
Bell fell behind the pace as the third stage wore on, with Chastain taking his place as the closest championship-eligible competitor to Logano. The Connecticut native proved to have been able to build a more than sizeable lead over the rest of the field, with his Penske teammate Ryan Blaney sitting close behind in second. After leading 188 of the 312 laps in the championship race, Logano crossed the line in first and secured his second title and first since 2018.