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Thursday December 2nd, 2021 8:13PM

Elliott brings recent experience to Cup Series title fight

By Reid Spencer-NASCAR Wire Service
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PHOENIX, Ariz. - Two of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 drivers — Chase Elliott and Martin Truex, Jr. — have NASCAR Cup Series championships to their credit, but Elliott is the only one who can go back-to-back with a victory in Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

If Elliott can win a second straight title, he’ll join fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson as the only Cup competitors in the 21st century to win consecutive championships. Johnson won five straight from 2006 through 2010.

The last driver before Johnson to go back-to-back was another Hendrick stalwart—Jeff Gordon in 1997 and 1998.

“I think, having gone through the motions last year, we learned a lot about ourselves and about what’s important,” the Dawsonville, Georgia native said. “How to perform in a big moment is a nice thing you can carry with you forward. On the same token, we didn’t have any of that experience last year, and it worked out OK.

“I feel like, for us, we just dive into what matters, and the guy who goes the fastest and runs the best race and executes a good day on Sunday will be rewarded, and that’s where our focus is.”

Denny Hamlin Hopes To Fashion NASCAR Cup Title Out Of Hectic Life

Out of chaos, Denny Hamlin hopes to be a NASCAR Cup Series champion at long last.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota freely acknowledges his life is a hectic scramble with no small share of controversy, and it’s no different with Sunday’s Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway in the offing.

Hamlin has to balance family life with racing life, which includes not only competing for the series championship for owner Joe Gibbs but also his fledgling ownership with NBA superstar Michael Jordan of another Cup team, 23XI Racing.

“How do I get up every morning and take my kids to school at 7:30?,” Hamlin asked rhetorically during Championship 4 Media Day interviews Thursday at the Phoenix Convention Center. “How do I go to 23XI and work for a couple days in the middle of the week during a Playoff run?

“I live in chaos. My life is chaos, and I thrive under chaos… The more (crap) that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it.”

Controversy drives Hamlin. Though Alex Bowman wrecked Hamlin and went on to win last Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, it was Hamlin who was roundly booed by fans in the grandstands for the harsh nature of his post-race comments.

Hamlin called Bowman a “hack.” Bowman gleefully made T-shirts sporting the comment. To Hamlin, it was just another day in the life — and motivation to provide an “in-your-face” to his detractors.

“To me, it’s fuel,” Hamlin said. “I’ve got so much fuel in my tank right now. There’s a lot of motivation there. I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville. Starting in the back, going to the back again and driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?

“I feel like that momentum was taken from us, but again, the momentum in my head swings back around to now I’m ultra-motivated, because I love the feeling of just like proving people wrong.”

Statistically, Hamlin has been the fastest of the Championship 4 drivers on tracks that feature NASCAR’s 750-horsepower competition package. That’s a source of confidence this year.

More important, however, is Hamlin’s evolution as a driver and a person since 2010, when he held the championship lead entering the final race but lost the title to Jimmie Johnson.

“Certainly, I’m more comfortable (today),” Hamlin acknowledged. “That’s not even a question. I’m comfortable in who I am. Back in 2010, I didn’t have the big race wins that I’ve had. I certainly know that I’m a championship-caliber driver. There’s not a question in my mind.

“Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn’t always been good enough. But certainly, we’re as deserving as any. In 2010, I would have said, ‘Am I really good enough to do this?’ I had a ton of wins, and in 2010 I was battling Jimmie, and things out of my control took us from locking it up to losing.

“And then I got in my own head, and I messed up. I just wasn’t as comfortable as what I am now.”

Despite His Nine Victories, Kyle Larson Doesn’t See Himself As The Favorite

Unlike all three of his Championship 4 opponents, Kyle Larson hasn’t ever won a NASCAR Cup Series event at Phoenix Raceway.

In fact, this year’s three other title aspirants collectively have been victorious in three of the last four races at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert — Denny Hamlin in the 2019 Playoff race, Chase Elliott in last year’s season finale and Martin Truex, Jr. this past spring.

But Larson’s status as a non-winner at Phoenix can hardly be deemed disqualifying when it comes to handicapping the championship race. All of his series-best nine victories this season have come on tracks where he had never won before.

Of greater concern is Larson’s performance on tracks that feature NASCAR’s 750-horsepower competition package. The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was seventh at Phoenix in March, fifth and 14th in two Martinsville races, 18th and sixth in two Richmond events and seventh at one-mile New Hampshire.

Those numbers don’t portend well for a championship outcome, and that’s why Larson doesn’t consider himself a clear favorite to win the title.

“I don’t think you can look at any of the four of us and really pick a favorite,” Larson said. “A lot of the races I won this year are the 550 package, high-downforce stuff. You could look at it maybe that’s what would hinder me.

“We’ve been good at the 750 races, too. I think it’s pretty equal. Yeah, I’m excited to compete with these three other guys.”

WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series season finale from Phoenix Raceway beginning at 2 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

NASCAR Cup Series
Phoenix Raceway - Avondale, AZ
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race - November 7, 2021

Sunday's Starting Lineup

Pos    Car    Driver    Team    Time    Speed
1.    5    Kyle Larson (P)    HendrickCars.com Chevrolet    26.116    137.847
2.    9    Chase Elliott (P)    NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet    26.289    136.939
3.    24    William Byron    Raptor Chevrolet    26.307    136.846
4.    12    Ryan Blaney    Menards/Jack Links Ford    26.315    136.804
5.    1    Kurt Busch    Monster Energy Chevrolet    26.327    136.742
6.    11    Denny Hamlin (P)    FedEx Express Toyota    26.361    136.565
7.    41    Cole Custer    HaasTooling.com Ford    26.432    136.199
8.    20    Christopher Bell    DEWALT Toyota    26.433    136.193
9.    4    Kevin Harvick    Busch Light #BuschPitBoss Ford    26.434    136.188
10.    22    Joey Logano    Shell Pennzoil Ford    26.436    136.178
11.    2    Brad Keselowski    Discount Tire Ford    26.469    136.008
12.    19    Martin Truex, Jr. (P)    Bass Pro Shops Toyota    26.494    135.880
13.    18    Kyle Busch    M&M's Toyota    26.502    135.839
14.    48    Alex Bowman    Ally Chevrolet    26.544    135.624
15.    21    Matt DiBenedetto    Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford    26.544    135.624
16.    42    Ross Chastain    Clover Chevrolet    26.544    135.624
17.    99    Daniel Suarez    Good Sam Chevrolet    26.558    135.552
18.    10    Aric Almirola    Smithfield Ford    26.568    135.501
19.    6    Ryan Newman    Castrol GTX Full Synthetic Ford    26.576    135.461
20.    8    Tyler Reddick    BetMGM Chevrolet    26.592    135.379
21.    47    Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.    Honey Nut Cheerios Chevrolet    26.594    135.369
22.    14    Chase Briscoe #    HighPoint.com Ford    26.623    135.221
23.    3    Austin Dillon    Dow Coatings Chevrolet    26.649    135.089
24.    7    Corey LaJoie    Schluter Systems Chevrolet    26.652    135.074
25.    23    Bubba Wallace    Door Dash Toyota    26.665    135.008
26.    17    Chris Buescher    Fastenal Ford    26.683    134.917
27.    43    Erik Jones    Rellevate Chevrolet    26.722    134.720
28.    34    Michael McDowell    Love's Travel Stops Ford    26.811    134.273
29.    77    Justin Haley(i)    Peacock - Streaming Now Chevrolet    26.812    134.268
30.    38    Anthony Alfredo #    Boot Barn Ford    26.906    133.799
31.    37    Ryan Preece    Kroger Chevrolet    26.921    133.725
32.    78    B.J. McLeod(i)    Pala Casino Ford    27.181    132.445
33.    51    Cody Ware(i)    Nurtec ODT Chevrolet    27.560    130.624
34.    53    Joey Gase(i)    DonateLife Chevrolet    27.716    129.889
35.    00    Quin Houff    CREEK Enterprises Inc. Chevrolet    27.861    129.213
36.    13    David Starr(i)    Bob Menery Ripper Magoo Toyota    27.874    129.153
37.    52    Josh Bilicki(i)    Boom Ford    27.887    129.092
38.    15    Garrett Smithley(i)    Carpets of Arizona Chevrolet    28.243    127.465
39.    66    Timmy Hill(i)    Coble Enterprises/Darn Transport Toyota    0.000    0.000

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