NASCAR: NJ native Martin Truex Jr. wins at Phoenix

Martin Truex Jr. won the NASCAR Cup Series event at Phoenix Raceway, which will also host the season finale in February.

A strong restart with 25 laps to go allowed Martin Truex Jr. to take home a victory at the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Phoenix will also host the season finale in November. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota recovered from an early brush with the wall to visit victory lane for the first time since the visit to Martinsville last June (a 29-race drought).

Truex, a Mayetta Township, NJ native, becomes the fifth different race-winner this season, earning the 28th victory of his Cup Series career. Joey Logano, who led a race-best 143 laps, came home second while Denny Hamlin finished third. Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

“Huge boost, huge confidence,” Truex said of the win. “If we would have come here last year in the final four, I would have been not very confident. Last year we struggled here for some reason. It’s never been our greatest track, I’ll say that. It’s always been just okay. I’ve never come here with a really warm, fuzzy feeling that we’re going to go there and win, we’re going to go there and be really, really strong and lead laps.”

“That was definitely a nice surprise today. Really just hats off to all the guys for the hard work. Everybody that builds the cars, puts in all the effort back at JGR, Toyota.”

The victory was of a come-from-behind effort for Truex, who made contact with the wall on lap 12 of 312 while battling Ryan Blaney for position in the top five. Truex was thus relegated to a 17th-place finish at the end of the first 75-lap stage (won by Blaney) but recovered well enough to finish in the runner-up slot behind Logano after the second.

Strong adjustments on pit stops, headed by crew chief James Small, allowed the No. 19 to get back into contention. This marks Small’s second season and second victory atop Truex’s pit box, coming home seventh last year.

“We worked really hard. We’ve got a great team,” Truex said of his No. 19 crew. “It seemed like for whatever reason, it was always little things that were biting us. We were always so close, always second or third. I don’t know how many times we’ve been second, third, fourth, top five since we won last year at Martinsville. It’s been a bunch.”

Truex first took the lead on lap 224, ending the dominance of Logano. The No. 22 Team Penske Ford dominated for a majority of the afternoon, leading a race-high 143 laps after finishing no worse than 10th in the last four visits to Phoenix. Logano had also won the previous spring race at Phoenix last March, the last race held prior to the coronavirus-induced pause.

Logano gained back the lead after a series of strong pit stops. Truex gained a shot at the win during one final yellow flag at lap 283, when his JGR teammate Kyle Busch spun after contact with Ross Chastain. Having just passed Keselowski for second before the yellow, Truex started next to Logano on what became the final restart and drove to his first win of the season. He became the fifth different winner in five Cup events this year. It also marks his first career win at Phoenix after a runner-up finish in 2019.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • During his postrace comments, Truex confirmed that he would run the Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt incarnation. Several drivers will join him as the Cup Series prepares to go dirt racing for the first time in over five decades. Truex will drive a Toyota Tundra for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

 

  • Kyle Larson, last week’s winner at Las Vegas, overcame starting at the rear of the field and two speeding penalties to finish seventh.

 

  • All three Team Penske cars finished in the top ten for the second consecutive weeks, as Blaney brought the No. 12 Ford home 10th.

 

  • Among those who failed to finish were Anthony Alfredo and Cody Ware, each of whom were involved in an accident on lap 89. Timmy Hill and Josh Bilicki likewise left early due to mechanical issues.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick reflects on the past, present, and future

As the NASCAR Cup Series rolls in the Phoenix, Kevin Harvick took some time to reflect on his lauded racing career.

Kevin Harvick has spent his NASCAR Cup Series career partaking, even creating, a different brand of March Madness. Thursday, for example, will mark the 20th anniversary of his first Cup victory, earned in just his third start. Harvick had taken over the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet left behind by the late Dale Earnhardt and held off Jeff Gordon in a photo finish to win the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 by a .006-second margin.

“It feels like a lifetime ago,” Harvick said of that emotion afternoon in reflection on Tuesday morning. Brought into the Cup Series through the most tragic of circumstances, Harvick looked back at the safety innovations made over the last 20 years.

“I think as you look at the sport the one thing that sticks out to me is just the massive amount of effort that NASCAR has put into putting our sport where it is today from a safety standpoint, and I think from Dale’s death and to where we are today and the things that accident taught us about our race cars and safety equipment and seats and walls and chassis,” he said. “The way that our sport operates and the way that sports operate in general is much different than it was in 2001, but the safety side is the side from a driving standpoint that sticks out the most to me.”

More recent history weighed on Harvick’s mind as well. The NASCAR circuit returns to Phoenix Raceway this weekend, with the Cup Series race coming on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Phoenix is the current site of NASCAR’s championship weekend, supplanting Homestead-Miami Speedway last season. But, at least this weekend, Phoenix might better known for hosting the last “normal” race weekend, one rife with the typical trappings of a NASCAR race weekend: practice, qualifying, the seating and garage areas packed to the gills. That afternoon, fans watched Joey Logano hold off Harvick to win the Phoenix spring event now known as the Instacart 500.

Days later, the ongoing health crisis served as the ultimate red flag pushing back the circuit’s return to Atlanta. NASCAR held out as long as it could, but it eventually joined its fellow professional leagues in hiatus before returning two months later.

Harvick would become one of the most prominent faces of NASCAR’s triumphant return. Adhering to social distancing mandates limited on-site personnel and often had drivers go right from their streetcars to their racecars. Qualifying and practice were eliminated to confine race weekends into a single day of action. Already bound for the Hall of Fame in Charlotte prior to the pause, Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, made his case to be included amongst the immortals.

The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won the first race back at Darlington in May, the first of a series-best nine wins. It allowed him to move into seventh place on the premier circuit’s all-time wins list. Bad luck in the postseason prevented Harvick from competing for a title in the regularly scheduled return to Phoenix in November. But it allowed a national audience, some of whom were enjoying their first racing experience, to witness his greatness and seal his spot amongst the essential names in NASCAR history through dominant efforts unaided by practice or qualifying runs.

Harvick, however, was more pleased with the changes NASCAR was able to make as a whole, reasoning that a hidden benefit of the forced changes was that the sport took full advantage of a chance to try new things.

“As a sport, we’ve done a really good job of navigating and adapting to our environment and doing the things that we need to do to put on a race and a show and obviously you’re seeing fans back in the stands,” Harvick noted. “I think our sport has been a leader on a lot of those types of things. I think, from a team standpoint and a sport, we’ve definitely been able to try a lot of things we probably wouldn’t have tried if it wasn’t for COVID.

“I think when you step back from it COVID will have forever changed our sport in many different areas,” he continued. “I think we’ve realized a lot of inefficiencies we’ve had as a sport from how many people we take to the track to how we function, how many days we need to be at the track. There are just so many little things that will make us more efficient, whether it’s how we bring guests to the racetrack, how we sign in, the sheer number of people, the days we’re at the racetrack.  I think there are just a lot of things that happened that probably wouldn’t have happened as rapidly if we weren’t in this environment, so in a really, really bad scenario, I think we’re gonna come out of this with a lot of ideas and tried a lot of things we might have not necessarily tried if it was a normal year.”

On a personal level in dealing with the pandemic, Harvick was far more pleased to speak about his off-track exploits. He has spent extended time with his family, noting he has sat down to more homecooked meals and doesn’t even leave to go grocery shopping. He and his wife DeLana continue to homeschool their children Keelan and Piper, even with schools open in the local area.

“There’s a lot of things that have changed personally in the way that our household functions in a very good way,” the patriarch Harvick said. “I think that’s probably something that I would tell you is how racing used to be.”

Looking back at some of the more emotional, yet triumphant, moments of his Cup career allowed Harvick to step away from his 2021 endeavors hitting a bit of a wall last week in Las Vegas. The No. 4 Ford started on the pole, earned through strong finishes over the first three events. Harvick and reigning Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell were the only drivers to earn top ten finishes in each leg of the opening trio.

Alas for Harvick, he struggled with an ill-handling racecar all day and eventually finished a lap down in 20th. Somehow, that was the best part of the afternoon for SHR, as Harvick’s No. 4 was their best-finish vehicle. Rookie Chase Briscoe finished immediately behind him while last season’s Rookie of the Year and Harvick’s fellow 2020 playoff contender Cole Custer rounded out the top 25. Aric Almirola, another playoff man in the No. 10 Ford, continued a brutal start to the season through a wreck that pushed him back to dead last in 38th.

Asked to describe his No. 4 Ford last weekend, Harvick merely replied “not fun”. But Harvick insists he’s not angry, and that the affair has already been forgotten. He says he would have the same mindset had he reached victory lane on Sunday.

“(Being) angry takes too much time and it’s hard to carry that all the way through the week,” he said. “I think when you look back at the first race last year and you have a chance to win the race and have the best car and then you go back to the second race and things don’t go your way just because it’s not what you expected, that’s just part of what we do.  You guys sometimes see the results and look at it and say, ‘He’s gonna be this or that,’ and, really, it’s just the same.  It’s really no different as you get into the meetings on Monday.  The conversations may be different, but it’s the same routine week after week for me.”

Phoenix would be a perfect place for Harvick to get his 2021 campaign back on the right track. He is by far the winningest driver in the history of the mile-long oval in the desert with nine visits to the winner’s circle. No other driver has earned more than four wins at the track.

The closest Harvick came to displaying any form of vanity was when he addressed an inquiry over whether he was a threat at Phoenix as a “silly question” in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“I think you should go back and look at the first race from last year that we led the most laps and had the fastest car. We wound up finishing second,” Harvick said of last spring’s visit. “I would consider us a challenger at just about any racetrack that you go to, but you’re not gonna be that way all the time, so, I think as we go to Phoenix you expect to go there and perform well.”

As Harvick hits up Phoenix, his past and present will take center stage. But his future is slowly taking shape as well.

With the road ahead reserved for his extracurricular time, Harvick’s focus lies not on the interesting Cup schedule ahead…he did leave the door open to running a similar race or even the Camping World Truck Series event prior to the Cup cars dirt excursion at Bristol later this month…but on the piloting antics of Keelan, who embarked on a racing journey of his own. The junior Harvick is often seen hitching rides with his dad on NASCAR race days, but the eight-year-old picked up his first go-kart victory last July…less than a week after Kevin won at Indianapolis.

Showcasing talents through four wheels has never been a hidden talent in the Harvick family. After all, DeLana has dabbled in racing herself and served as the co-owner of Kevin’s eponymous race team that won 53 races at the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity levels during a decade of competition (2002-11) before merging with his former cohorts at Richard Childress Racing. The elder Harvick hinted that Microsoft Excel might be one of his best teammates in this day and age, especially when it comes to helping Keelan fulfill his racing dreams.

“It just takes a lot of planning because in order to properly teach somebody how to race they have to race a lot,” he said. “I think this is kind of the first time that we’ve jumped into trying to plan two racing schedules and where everybody is going to be and keeping mom happy with where we’re at with school and her having to load up and take everybody to the go-kart track is new for her, so it’s a lot of spreadsheets.”

But while Harvick might be making plans to conquer some of his own racing challenges, one challenge that isn’t coming anytime soon is the construction of a trophy case for his son.

“I have to remind him periodically that he’s still just a go-kart racer and until he gets a real job that he’s still under control of mom and dad,” Harvick said with a laugh. “So he can have a little bit of space in his little room downstairs with his iRacing simulator and all the things that he has down there, but he’s gonna have to go find his own place if he wants to be in charge of where they all go.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Joey Logano

With his declaration of being the favorite and propensity to win no matter what, Joey Logano doesn’t want friends…he wants a NASCAR title.

We’ve been through a lot in the social distancing era, so it’s downright shocking to go back to the early stages of 2020 and realize that, yes, that indeed happened in 2020.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The NBA All-Star Game came back from the dead under a new scoring format. XFL 2.0 came and went. Joey Logano won the first race at the new site of NASCAR’s championship finale.

Logano was the man to beat before the world stopped, earning two wins over the first four events of the 2020 season, the latter being the Fan Shield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8. He managed to get the best of an eventful race, evading several late-race cautions and restarts earn a victory in overtime before the COVID-19-induced pause commenced.

“It does feel like a long time ago when we were out there.” Logano said with a laugh when asked about the victory earlier this week. “So many things have happened since then, I think that’s why.”

Eight months later, the NASCAR season finale is ready to descend upon the desert on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the championship finale will be held at the recently-renovated facility after over two decades at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Logano captured his first NASCAR Cup Series title in 2018.

Alas for Logano, there’s not as much he can take from his car in that event as he would like. In adjusting to life after the pandemic, the weekend staples of qualifying and practices have been almost entirely erased. The starting lineup has been instead been determined by random draws and statistical formulas. Logano was originally set to start second but moved up to pole position after Chase Elliott failed prerace inspection.

“There’s definitely things you can go back on,” he said. “That’s really all we have, to be honest with you. We don’t have the opportunity to try many new things without practice, right? You don’t want to go too far outside of the box. You know what worked for you in the spring. We had a very fast car, overcame a lot of adversity, still won the race. It just shows that we had a very good car. We can make some tweaks here and there to the setup probably, some things that we feel very confident in will be better, but we’re not going to step way outside the box. It’s just kind of what we got. Even though it feels like a year and a half ago when we were out there, that’s really what we have to go back on, is our notes from that race.”

The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is no stranger to big moments in his NASCAR career. Heck, this is a driver that was bestowed the nickname “Sliced Bread” in reference to the age-old “best thing since” axiom during his days on the lower tiers of NASCAR. He has responded with the aforementioned Cup title and 26 race victories over the past nine seasons. Anti-Logano conspiracy theorists could perhaps argue that the shift to Phoenix was made to help out Logano, who has earned pair of wins and three consecutive top-ten finishes.

It’s perhaps safe to say that Logano has made his share of detractors. Kyle Busch, whose reign as Cup Series champion will end in the desert today, remarked after a contentious get-together during the opening playoff round’s closer at Bristol that Logano “had zero friends on the racetrack”. Logano replied only by wholeheartedly agreeing days later.

Yet, Logano’s aggressiveness has been a throwback to the days of “rubbin’s racing” that fans have harkened for. Alas for these fans, Logano has been taking their favorites out in the process. For example, he took away a win at Martinsville away from Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, a win that more or less led to the latter’s playoff demise. Logano went on to take home his title.

That aggressiveness is on display through Logano’s attitude when it comes to the first Phoenix finale. While other drivers have been pleased with inclusion in the championship quartet, Logano dismissed such a notion in the most polite way possible.

“I think titles are the most important thing,” he said. “Any sport you look at, the question is, How many championships do you have? Not how many times have you made it to the finals? I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times. That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”

“I ask this question all the time: Anyone remember who finished second last year? I don’t. I honestly have no clue who finished second last year, or third or fourth, or even who was it in. I know I wasn’t in it, that’s what I know. When I look at it that way, it’s about the championship.”

Winning a championship in a year where drivers are more or less going from their street cars to their racecars would be quite telling for any of the drivers competing, taking home the trophy in a year where on-track adjustments through practice and qualifying have been rendered null and void. It’s an honor that seems to be fueling Logano as he tries to earn that second championship to accompany the first.

“We all have the same opportunities. The rules are the same for everybody. It’s an equal playing field. There’s a trophy at the end of the day. We all had to go to the same amount of races, we all had the same opportunity to score the same amount of points and wins. “The rules didn’t change in the middle of the year…Maybe our schedule changed, the way we go about it. It’s the same for everybody.

“Honestly, yes, a championship is a championship. Doesn’t matter if you won it in 2020 when you had no practice or you won it in 2019 or 2021. Doesn’t matter, it’s a championship.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Denny Hamlin

Hamlin’s NASCAR championship moment has yet to arrive. Set to enter a new world of team ownership, will it finally be delivered on Sunday?

Enough has been said and written about how 2020 has been…tough. Sports have done their part to ease the blow while trying a role in the changes the year’s sense of reckoning has brought to us. The championships the year has offered to us have provided their share of inspiring moments, particularly in well-deserving veterans earning their first championships. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble. Los Angeles Dodgers old (Clayton Kershaw) and new (Anthony Davis) brought the World Series and NBA Finals’ prizes back to the west coast.

Denny Hamlin could well be next at the NASCAR Cup Series’ Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Hamlin has been a Cup Series staple since 2005. Right from the get-go, it was clear that he was going to a force to be reckoned with on the premier circuit. A midseason replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11, Hamlin earned three top-ten finishes in his first six career races. In his first full-time season, he was the first rookie to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs (then known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup) and came home third.

Since then, he and the No. 11 team have accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish on the Cup Series level. He owns three victories in the iconic Daytona 500, including the most recent pair, and has been a playoff driver in all but one of his full-time seasons (the exception being an injury-shortened campaign in 2013). He even dominated the virtual Cup circuit, winning two races in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series held during the COVID-19-induced pause.

All that’s missing is an elusive Cup Series championship. We on the east coast know all about superstars earning all but that final trophy hoist. Rangers fans recently had to bid farewell to Henrik Lundqvist with a Stanley Cup celebration. Patrick Ewing came up short in a 1994 NBA Finals visit (missing another five years later due to injury).

It’s cruelly ironic that it seems like the more that Hamlin has accomplished, the more questions he has had to field about the vacancy in his trophy case. 2020 has truly been one for the ages when it comes to Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota team and, on, paper, missing out on the title would sting. Seven races have ended with Hamlin in victory lane, second-best on the circuit to only Kevin Harvick’s nine. On paper, missing out on a championship in a season like that would certainly sting. True to the “everything but a title” trope, Hamlin has come tantalizingly, deservedly close to a championship, only to be denied by misfortune or forces beyond his control. He won a season-best eight races and finished no worse than 12th over the first nine playoff races, but contact in the Homestead-Miami-based finale with Greg Biffle caused a spin that relegated him to a 14th-place finish. Jimmie Johnson went home in the runner-up spot, giving him enough points to overtake Hamlin for the title.

But Hamlin wants to make it clear: he believes that this 2020 season no matter what happens on Sunday.

“It’s not whether you win this weekend or not,” Hamlin said earlier this week. “The championship is not necessarily an indicative measuring stick of your whole year. If you get to the final four, that is a measuring stick that you’ve had a successful year.”

“This is going to be a great weekend that we’re going to live with the result no matter what it is, and I just want to enjoy it and have fun with it.
It’s different, but we’ve adapted all year. It won’t hurt us to adapt for one more week.”

Hamlin further stressed that an appearance in the championship quartet is no cause for disappointment. This is the fourth time he has appeared in the group since elimination rounds were introduced to the postseason in 2014. That includes the two most recent editions, though Hamlin has been relegated to fourth each time.

“Certainly, I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season. I know that it’s our goal for our 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make to it to the Final Four. It’s never win a championship. It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35, 36‑week body of work.”

“When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds…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.”

On the NASCAR circuit, Hamlin does have some strong company. Some have compared him to long-time racer Mark Martin, who came home in the Cup Series standings’ runner-up spot on five occasions. Hamlin moved passed Martin on the all-time Cup wins list with his 41st victory at Pocono Raceway back in June. In that same race, Hamling joined Jeff Gordon as the only six-time winner in Long Pond.

True to this form of acceptance and determination, Hamlin sees any comparison to Martin, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, only as a compliment.

“I never would consider any comparison to Mark Martin an insult,” he said. “I’ll take those comparisons all day because the guy is a badass race car driver that nobody wanted to face week in and week out, nobody. Not Dale Earnhardt, nobody wanted to face Mark Martin”

I get it, (championships are) very, very important. It’s where I’m at the sport’s highest level, most people gauge your success level or how good you are off of championships, but I also know that my competitors will probably say that I’m one of the toughest competitors and toughest guys to beat and that’s all I really care about is having the respect of them and knowing that week in and week out I can go and compete for race wins, and knowing that over the last two years, ain’t nobody won any more. I like where I’m at.”

Hamlin is instead pleased to focus on team accomplishments that have put him back in the ranks of NASCAR’s elite. It starts at the top of the pit box under the oversight of crew chief Chris Gabehart, who previously oversaw victorious JGR efforts at the Xfinity level. Since he and Hamlin joined forces last season, the two have combined for 13 wins.

One of those races was the Phoenix event last season, when the track in the desert held the penultimate date on the Cup Series schedule. In dire need of a win…he was 20 points behind the points-based cutoff at the start of the afternoon…Hamlin would go on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps to earn a victory in an encased space. Thanks to adjustments made by the team, he went on to lead all but four of the final 136 laps, beating out fellow Gibbs competitor Kyle Busch.

Things are a little different for Hamlin and the field, considering that there will be no qualifying or practice in the leadup to the Phoenix race. But the confidence his team has instilled in him has provided plenty of faith in what could go down as one of the biggest race of his career.

“I know that our team was capable of (last year’s Phoenix race),” Hamling said. “It was like, wow, they needed to bring it and they brought it, and I have no doubt that this weekend will be no different, that every effort will be put on us as there was last year when we had to lock ourselves in.”

“It’s a little different this year in the Final Four being that all the resources within JGR we’ve got working on our race car and focusing on our race car. Yeah, it’s encouraging for me to especially go to a track that we had to win last year and got it done to again this year having to win to get it done.”

No matter what happens on Sunday, it feels like the end of an era for Hamlin in the sense that the Phoenix race will be his final event solely as a driver. Next year, Hamlin begins an ambitious endeavor through the world of team ownership, uniting with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form a new team, 23XI Racing. Bubba Wallace will drive the team’s debut vehicle, a Toyota branded with Jordan’s famous No. 23.

Don’t let Hamlin’s satisfaction with a final four appearance fool you, though. He knows what a championship can do for his legacy, how it can firmly entrench him in NASCAR’s ultimate elite. With Harvick gone, Hamlin and his dominant season have a chance to win what’s perhaps the ultimate Cup Series title, one where chances for on-track adjustments are few and far between. The possibility just may be enough for Hamlin to go full-Last Dance Jordan…and take things personally.

“I’ve had so many failures that it’s created a logbook of things that I need to be aware of this time around. Certainly I believe that there’s something to being older and the mental side of things and having that advantage,” he said. “I just want to work hard and make sure that I’m as informed as I possibly can be, be prepared for anything that gets thrown my way, and as you get older, you learn to identify mistakes that you made in the past that you now need to account for when you are working towards being a champion.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott is arguably the face of NASCAR. After breaking his Round of 8 curse, he’s ready to compete for a title to match his father’s.

Chase Elliott has literally driven a championship-winning machine during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series postseason. In the opening at Darlington Raceway, Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet aesthetically resembled the vehicle his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson drove to the fourth of his record seven NASCAR titles. As the season ends at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Elliott’s traditionally blue numeral will don shades of yellow in tribute to the numbers that Johnson has represented on the Cup circuit since 2002.

As one era ends at Phoenix in 2002, another could potentially begin. Sunday will mark the final race of Johnson’s legendary career. A future in IndyCar Racing awaits him, as does de facto instant entry to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte as soon as he’s eligible. The duel in the desert also marks the first race that can potentially end with Elliott hoisting the Cup Series’ trophy in victory lane.

Set to turn 25 in three weeks, Elliott’s NASCAR resume to date is one that many older drivers would give an arm and a leg for. He has earned 10 Cup Series victories, sat on the pole for a pair of Daytona 500s, won at historic Darlington Raceway at a mere 18 years old, took home the latest All-Star Race, won a Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, and has developed a niche for road courses, winning the last four events at such tracks (a mark bested only by Jeff Gordon). Elliott is also the two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, breaking the 15-year stranglehold the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. held on the title.

“I don’t know because I’ve never done it,” Elliott said in the leadup to Phoenix earlier this week when asked about his legacy. “I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before.”

“I just think to be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong, in my opinion, my approach right now, is the wrong thing. I’m just all eyes. My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That is what matters on Sunday. That is going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.”

Elliott’s success makes it almost a shame that his career is forever connected to legends of the sport. He’s been teammates with the semi-retiring Johnson since 2015, raced for Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide/Xfinity Series team (winning the aforementioned title in 2014). Of course, the first thing many know about Elliott is that he’s the son of Bill, a winner of 45 races on NASCAR’s national levels, the 1988 Cup title, and 16 Most Popular Driver titles.

“I’m very lucky. My dad obviously has had great success over the years, has been around this deal for a long time. Obviously, Jimmie is a great one to lean on, too,” Elliott said of the mentorship and help he has had over his career. “The big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is to just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted. You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”

Elliott has more or less shut down the idea that nepotism earned him a ride at one of auto racing’s most iconic organizations with his performance on the track. The ultimate sign of perseverance gained throughout his time on the Cup asphalt perhaps came in the Round of 8’s finale at Martinsville last week. This de facto semifinal round had often served as a thorn in Elliott’s side, an impenetrable barrier to the status of a legend. But he not only led 236 of 500 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity 500, but both he and his team also overcame what could’ve been a disastrous visit to pit road to recover for a win. The No. 9’s jackman was initially penalized for jumping over the wall too soon, but his quick reset and the team’s appeal caused NASCAR to rescind the penalty. Elliott would take care of the rest, leaving pit road fourth and later passing fellow go-or-go-home racer Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 44 to go.

No one could rationally fault Elliott for not earning a Cup Series title just yet. Some of the biggest young phenoms in the sport have struggled to get off to a fast start on the stat sheet…some never find it at all. Countless wunderkinder have been labeled “The Next Jeff Gordon” before fading away into racing oblivion. Elliott maintained early consistency, but it took more than two full seasons to earn his first Cup Series victory, finally doing so near the Finger Lakes at the Watkins Glen event in 2018. Being attached to so many legends of the sport only raised the temperature of Elliott’s pressure cooker.

Even in preparing for his first title, Elliott dealt with questions of the past. Irony has lingered over the No. 9’s pit box all weekend. Not only did Bill capture his Cup title in the same number, but it was a championship won alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers…each of whom took care of their end of the bargain in the World Series and NBA Finals respectively.

Elliott is more than likely used to these questions and has adapted by smiling and taking them in stride. He was impressed with the Los Angeles championship connection. But refused to comment…if only because he hasn’t earned one of his own just yet.

“I feel like it’s so hard. 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?” he said.

“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.”

Elliott has spent his career becoming his own racer, writing his own legend. It’s partially why he hasn’t leaned on the seven-time Johnson for advice in working through championship weekend, though he did take time to acknowledge Johnson’s footprint on the sport by calling him a “champion on and off the track”.

Even if Elliott comes up short on Sunday, he has a bit of a failsafe comeback in that there will probably be plenty of opportunities for him to have another go at it. But if he’s unwilling to use his racing tree as an excuse or a crutch, you can guarantee he won’t be using youth. Elliott is all too aware that his first trip to the final four could well be his last.

“You don’t know. Hell, I don’t know what tomorrow is. I don’t think anybody does,” Elliott said. “To sit here and promise myself things that I can’t promise myself, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, right?

“I do know this is a moment you have to enjoy because you don’t know with your last race win is, you don’t know when your last day is, when the last Championship 4 is for you, all of the above. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole moment and make the most of whatever Sunday brings, put all the emphasis and preparation in the things that are going to give us the best chance on Sunday. To me, that’s my preparation for certain situations and probably most importantly the right decisions on the car to get our car balance as close as we can to start the race. All my emphasis is there, and just trying to enjoy and embrace this time, make the most of it.”

There are few guarantees on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. Chase Elliott not looking for a crutch and an excuse proves a rare exception on the asphalt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion is pulling out all the stops when it comes to earning an elusive second title.

Every working American knows what it’s like to crack open a celebratory cold one after a long, successful day at work. The suds may taste even sweeter when the beermaker more or less pays you to be seen representing their product.

Brad Keselowski perhaps provided the ultimate example of the after-hours refreshment back in 2012. It was Keselowski’s second season in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, which has joined consistent sponsorship from the Miller Brewing Company, primarily its Miller Lite beverage, for decades. Shortly after a 15th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway allowed him to clinch what was then the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, Keselowski emerged from the machine often referred to as the “Blue Deuce” and was immediately poured a great tasting, less filling Miller Lite in a tall, branded glass. The jubilant Keselowski quickly downed his beverage minutes before an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter and continued to drink while speaking to anchor Kevin Connors, admitting right from the start that he “had a little buzz”.

Keselowski has come close to a second title in the years since. Since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014, the No. 2 has twice been amongst the four drivers eligible for a championship at the season finale, including his third-place posting last season. A second championship, however, has proved elusive. The team is back in 2020’s contending quartet, who will fight for the Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway for the first time in the track’s history on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). To make sure there’s another frosty brew awaiting him at the end, the Keselowski family is taking matters into their own hands.

Speaking to reporters in the leadup to the Season Finale 500, Keselowski mentioned that he’s packing light for Phoenix, especially in the age of an ongoing health crisis. But with families invited to partake in the championship finale, Keselowski’s wife Paige is bringing over a special memento: the glass.

Keselowski is eager to leave the past in the past, but mentioned that Paige found the supposed Holy Grail in their home. But the glass sipped from on a South Beach evening that there was still beer leftover in it…beer older than his daughters Scarlett and Autumn combined.

“My wife has told me that she will prepare the glass as long as I promise to drink responsibly,” Keselowski said with a smile. “Those people that know me know that I like to leave things as they were, meaning that we located the glass from 2012. It still had beer in it a little bit on the bottom. Needless to say, that was not a pleasant sight, but it was authentic, so my wife is cleaning it as we speak, she’s going to wrap it up, put it in a nice bubble-wrapped box, and hopefully we’ll be getting it out Sunday night.”

Keselowski comes to the desert with momentum on his side. His playoff slate got off to a strong start with a win at Richmond in the second race of the postseason decalogue, a win that earned him automatic entry to the second round. Four consecutive finishes outside the top ten followed, placing him in a precarious position, though he did manage to reach the Round of 8 semifinals.

After finishing fourth at Kansas and sixth at Texas, Keselowski held a healthy 25-point lead over the cutoff at the onset of the Martinsville event to close things out. But with win-or-go-home contender Chase Elliott dominating the affair, Keselowski got caught up in a three-way battle for two spots…his adversaries being Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, the faces of 2020 with a combined 16 wins over the first 34 races.

Keselowski earned four wins, the driver immediately behind Hamlin and Harvick in that stat category. Yet their dominance overshadowed what was an impressive season, even by former Cup champion standards. His four wins and 23 top-ten finishes were his best since 2016, a season marred by a brutal showing in the Round of 12. In that season, Keselowski was a mainstay in the front row of the series standings, but a crash at Kansas and engine woes at Talladega doomed his title case. Two years prior, Keselowski had won a circuit-best six races but a gear problem at the first semifinal race..then held at Martinsville…doomed him from the start.

Playoff demons threatened to rise again at the Virginia-based short track last week. With less than 100 laps remaining, Keselowski had to go to the rear of the field when he was caught speeding off pit road. But he managed to work his way past both Hamlin and Harvick to earn a fourth-place finish, one that left him a handful of points ahead of the eliminated Harvick.

Keselowski knew about the heartbreak of playoff defeat and even said he felt sympathy for the eliminated Harvick. But he was proud of the way his team rallied to clinch a final spot, a team effort headlined by the help first-year crew chief Jeremy Bullins. This union was established by a game of Silly Season musical chairs, one that saw Bullins make his way over from his Penski neighbors at the No. 12 stall of Ryan Blaney. Keselowski and Bullins previously united for 46 races on the Nationwide/Xfinity Series circuit, winning 14 of them.

“I think probably the biggest thing I took out of the last round was from Martinsville itself,” Keselowski said in Round of 8 reflection. “I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship.”

“It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.”

Keselowski certainly knows a thing or two about performing in big moments. His first Cup Series win came when he was driving a low-budget car for now-defunct Phoenix Racing in 2009, a year before he dominated the following year’s NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit, beating out established Cup star Carl Edwards by over 400 points for the victory. It’s part of a mental resiliency that Keselowski acknowledges is a major part of the championship formula.

“A large part of being a race car driver is mental. It’s the approach, the preparation, it’s the resiliency,” he said. “Those are mental things that manifest themselves into physical results. It’s hard for me to comment on any other driver’s preparation. I’ve got enough to prepare myself, let alone to critique against anyone else’s preparation, but I know that I feel good about it.”

Despite these championship traits, it feels like Keselowski continues to slip under the radar, the finale conversations dominated by contending companions Elliott (two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award), Hamlin (seeking his first title in 16 seasons), and his Penske teammate Joey Logano (a fellow former champion with a penchant for aggressive driving). It’s given him a slight underdog status he could potentially capitalize on.

Keselowski, however, defies the trope of bulletin board material, seeking to race only for competition and championship purposes…not because someone was doubting him, or because there’s an ice-cold, extra-large beer waiting for him in victory lane.

“I don’t really need external motivation, to be honest, and I really don’t feed off of it. I enjoy it when people have confidence in me. Certainly, that’s a pleasurable thing to experience, but it’s not motivating to me. What’s motivating to me is usually, like I said, looking at my family’s faces and knowing how excited they are to get to go to Phoenix, and that’s motivating to me. My team and seeing them work so hard and knowing that their heart is in a great place, that’s motivating to me. I think that’s probably where I take the motivation from.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags