Friday January 27th, 2023 8:15PM

Elliott has high expectations for Phoenix Cup finale

By Reid Spencer and Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
  Contact Editor

Chase Elliott refused to select a favorite from among his Championship 4 colleagues during Thursday’s NASCAR Media Day press conference, insisting that after a 35-race season to date if you qualified for this weekend’s championship race at Phoenix Raceway. You could be the champion.

Elliott will compete against Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, and Joey Logano for the season trophy Sunday. Both Elliott and Logano are racing for their second championship. Both Chastain and Bell are making their Championship 4 debut this weekend.

Elliott has a strong record at Phoenix – winning the 2020 title race from pole position to claim his first championship. He has scored eight top-10s in 13 starts and led 546 laps at the one-mile track. He comes into the championship finale with only a pair of top 10 finishes in the nine Playoff races – a win at Talladega and a runner-up at Bristol.

“Personally, being a part of it the last couple years and as this format has kind of progressed and changed, I think if you make it to that last race, I think you have a shot,” Elliott said. “If you’re in the final four, I think you have a chance.

“We’ve seen this, you don’t have to dominate all day to win (the title)…What Jimmie (Johnson) did in 2016 is a great example of not necessarily being the best car all day but when it came time to execute at the end of the day, put together some good restarts, some good pit stops and make it happen, they did.

“Our Playoffs hasn’t been great but with this format, it really doesn’t matter now. If you’re part of the show, you’re part of the show. And if you have a shot this weekend, you have a shot to change the narrative and write the end of the story however you want.”

Both Logano and Bell won races in the Playoffs’ Round of 8 to earn their title opportunity. Elliott and Chastain “pointed” their way into championship contention.

In a rather unusual twist, the Hendrick Motorsports team could capture both the driver and team championship but with different drivers. Elliott is racing for the driver’s title and Kyle Larson qualified the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet for the team owner’s championship.

“The best thing that could happen is one of us wins the race and the other runs second and you can check both boxes and we all go home happy,” Elliott said. “That would be choice number one for me, and I think that’s feasible.”

Chastain Still Can’t Believe He Pulled-Off The Move At Martinsville

Ross Chastain has spent much of his young career overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations.

However, the Floridia native’s singular clutch move to qualify for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway wasn’t even an expectation, it was a once-an-era moment that will undoubtedly go down in NASCAR lore. And Chastain himself still can’t help but smile when he talks about it.

His last lap, last-ditch effort to make his first title field is one of the most talked-about, tweeted-about, replayed moves in recent history. With less than one lap to go at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway last Sunday, he purposely slammed his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet hard into the outside wall, floored the gas and “walled” his way from the 10th position to finish fifth place – enough to secure the final Playoff transfer into Sunday’s championship race.

This week Chastain said he’s heard from people he hasn’t talked to in years, or ever before. His phone is full of voicemails, and he counted a thousand text messages. Team co-owner, Grammy Award-winning superstar Pitbull, called too.

“He checks in, more than just for the wins and good races,” Chastain said of Pitbull. “He loves it that we’re up against some real giants in the sports and we keep fighting and we keep winning. Not that we won the race in Martinsville, but we won the moment to transfer, and he was really excited.”

Chastain said he has looked back at the video and still cannot explain the physics of his move, “what happened, why that car did not slow down, why it kept air in the tires,” – how he made it to the finish line and actually set a new track record.

“Why it worked, I don’t know, but I have no ideas, no plans to ever do that again because it was not pleasant,” he said.

“I’m proud of it, I’m proud we’ve moved the needle for fans and casual people that were not fans and now they want to experience NASCAR and come to track and feel that roar that thunder when we go by,” Chastain said, noting how members from other teams came out to congratulate him and give him back slaps when came down pit road after the race.

Chastain is optimistic about his title hopes this weekend. His best finish in eight starts is a runner-up showing this spring. He is having a breakout year with the second year old Trackhouse organization scoring his first two career NASCAR Cup Series wins (at Circuit of The Americas and Talladega). He has a career high 20 top-10 finishes and led a career high 692 laps.

For Joey Logano, Nothing Short Of A Championship Will Do

To say Joey Logano is optimistic about the way circumstances have played out over the past three weeks would be a massive understatement.

First of all, Logano won the first race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 8 on Oct. 16 at Las Vegas. The certainty of advancement to the Championship 4 has given his No. 22 Team Penske team the luxury of extra time to prepare for Sunday’s title race at Phoenix.

At 32, Logano is the oldest of the four Championship 4 drivers. With 14 full seasons in the Cup Series and 506 races under his belt, he is by far the most experienced. He and Chase Elliott are the only two drivers vying for the title who already have won a championship.

For Logano, it’s an opportunity not to waste.

“I feel like we’re in a great spot right now,” Logano said on Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day interviews at the Phoenix Convention Center. “I feel like our team is in a great spot for a lot of reasons. For one, we’re not happy to be here. We’re not just happy to be in the Championship 4. This isn’t enough for us.

“I feel like that’s the number one driver for the 22 team to win this thing. I think with that mentality and the three weeks that we’ve had since Vegas to really focus in here, it’s going to give us a huge advantage to not only have a good practice plan and set our car up, but also execute this race correctly, on top of the experience we’ve got.

“I’ve never felt more solid in this position than I do right now. With that said, I’m ready to go racing and get out there, because we feel prepared. We’re ready to go to battle.”

Entering Championship Race, Christopher Bell Is OK With Relative Obscurity

Given the dramatic way Christopher Bell has advanced to the Championship 4, it might seem strange that the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota thinks of himself as completely under the radar.

In a win-or-bust situation at the Charlotte infield road course on October 9, Bell took advantage of a late caution, won the race and catapulted into the Round of 8.

After suffering two flat tires a week later at Texas and finishing 11th a week later at Homestead-Miami, Bell once again needed a victory to keep his championship hopes alive. He took control of the Round of 8 elimination race shortly after the halfway point and triumphed once again.

Bell comes to Phoenix with crew chief Adam Stevens on his pit box. Stevens is the only active crew chief in the Cup garage with more than one championship, having won titles with Kyle Busch in 2015 and 2019.

But Bell thinks Stevens may be overlooked this season — because of his driver.

“I think that maybe has a lot to do with my role,” Bell said. “Nobody really realizes I drive race cars for a living, for the most part. I embrace that role. I guess I don’t do anything else to advocate myself or anything like that.

“Any time it seems like people are teamed up with me, they’re off the radar.”

Bell says he doesn’t mind the perceived anonymity.

“It’s just kind of the way it’s unfolded over my… I don’t really know how long,” he said. “That’s fine by me. Maybe I’ll be the least famous Cup champion one day.”

NXS: Ty Gibbs Arrives In Phoenix Apologetic But Focused On A Title

From the look on his face to his body language, Ty Gibbs knew that Thursday’s Championship 4 Media Day in Phoenix was going to be a test of resolve and contrition.

And from the very first question from reporters to the very first answer he offered, Gibbs was resolute in his apology saying, “selfish actions” and “being caught in the moment” led to his highly criticized racing style last week.

Gibbs fully concedes, wrecking his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Brandon Jones for the victory in last weekend’s championship field-setting race at Martinsville was not a “good look” and it had very real consequences for his family’s team. Jones was leading the race at the time Gibbs hit him from behind with less than a lap remaining and drove by for the win – acknowledging Thursday that he understood the situation at the time, “I knew he (Jones) had to win.”

“My actions put myself in this position and I just have to learn from it and move on, it’s just hard,” said the 20-year-old Gibbs, who will vie for his first NASCAR national series title against three JR Motorsports drivers – Noah Gragson, Josh Berry and Justin Allgaier – in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Race.

Had Jones won the race last week, it would have been his ticket into the Championship 4 pitting a pair of JRM Chevrolets against a pair of JGR Toyotas. Now Gibbs – a six-time winner – will have to rise to the occasion representing his team on his own.

“I think the biggest thing is at JGR, we are all one big family and for me to kind of break that apart for my selfish actions really hurts me because I kinda grew up there,” Gibbs said. “And it’s not cool. These guys work so hard the whole year and it’s just hard, it’s a lot.”

Gibbs would not provide details but said he has spoken to Jones and “I can completely understand where he’s coming from, and I accept it. … I have to face the fact I made a mistake and have to work as hard as I can to fix these issues.”

Gibbs said he watched the television race highlights late last Saturday and that “it does affect me” watching the replay of a move he wishes he hadn’t made – and also hearing the loud and negative fan reaction when he emerged from this car.

Gragson, who has a season-high – and career best – eight race wins in 2022, was candid in his displeasure over Gibbs’ racing last week. The driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet said, “I’m just over it,” about Gibb’s racing style.

“I’m just sick and tired of the, ‘I’m sorry, I’m trying to learn’ deal,” Gragson said. “It’s been two years. … I think all of us are definitely over being the pinball for him.”

Gragson brushed off the idea that perhaps Gibbs returns to the track this week a little more mindful. “He doesn’t care,” said Gragson, who added the two even had a conversation mid-season about Gibbs aggressive tactics.

“It’s crazy to me, but it worked out for JRM so now we’ve got a 75 percent chance to win (the championship),” said Gragson, who will move up to the NASCAR Cup Series next season and be replaced next year at JRM by Brandon Jones.

Gragson won at Phoenix in March. Gibbs best finish in two starts, is runner-up in 2021.

Gibbs acknowledged the possibility that Jones or someone else in the field perhaps another competitor he’s had a past run-in with may do something to hurt his chances at a race win and the series championship. But Gibbs reiterated, “There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“You just have to transition your mind to that,” Gibbs said, of re-setting and preparing to race for the championship.

“For me, I love racing so much I can transition it pretty easy to my racing side, just because I love it,” Gibbs said. “And I feel like that’s a good trait I have but sometimes I make mistakes and have to own up to it and work as hard as I can to fix that as I do racing and studying data.”

NCWTS: Ben Rhodes Takes An “Old Fashioned” Approach To Possible Second Truck Title

Ben Rhodes is superstitious about being in the same room as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series trophy.

The Kentuckian has an Old Fashioned named after him in The Barn at Phoenix Raceway.

Rhodes mentioned both Seneca and Pythagoras in his Championship 4 Media Day interview at the Phoenix Convention Center.

And — oh, yes — he’s the defending series champion — without much credit in the eyes of handicappers for winning the title last year.

Among the Championship 4 drivers, Rhodes is the clear long shot. First-time qualifier Chandler Smith of Talking Rock, Georgia is the oddsmakers’ favorite, having won the 2021 season finale as Rhodes was wrapping up the championship with a third-place run.

Rhodes doesn’t mind that the bookies aren’t sanguine about his chances. With a sixth-place finish on October 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he made the Championship 4 by one point over Stewart Friesen.

But Rhodes feels the trial by fire might help him — hence, the quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca.

“I believe this is a quote from Seneca, and I’m going to paraphrase a little bit, but ‘The road to greatness is always rough,’” Rhodes said. “It feels like every season in the Playoffs — I can only think of one time that we were able to just kind of coast through to the next round.

“For the most part, it’s fighting tooth-and-nail just to get ourselves into that spot to transfer. Here’s the tiebreaker. Here’s one point. Here’s four points. It’s not easy to do that. It’s very easy to make mistakes in high-pressure situations. So, I think the fact that we had to be forged in fire has already given us a little bit of an advantage.”

Rhodes acknowledges that ThorSport Racing teammate Ty Majeski has momentum on his side, having won two of the last three races. But Rhodes hasn’t lost his hunger for a second championship. Teammate Matt Crafton is the only driver in series history to win back-to-back titles, a feat he accomplished in 2013 and 2014.

Hence, the Pythagoras reference.

“I believe there’s a cup called the Pythagoras Cup,” Rhodes said. “When the Cup gets full, it drains itself back out. That’s kind of what the championship felt like last year. We won it — I’ve never experienced such happiness and true emotion in racing before. It felt like it was so long to get to this point.

“Now I feel like I can’t live without it. My cup’s empty again. I’ve got to fill it.”

Rhodes, who was in his cups for last year’s post-race press conference, promised another memorable celebration if he wins a second title.

“We have Ben Rhodes Old Fashioneds now served at The Barn,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know how they’re concocting them, because I made mine my way. Hopefully, they‘re following that recipe.

“That was the whole story. I went out there last year, and they didn’t have an Old Fashioned. I’m from Kentucky — ain’t no bourbon. So, they’ve got it now. Now I just have to perform — 150 laps to make it to The Barn.

“And you’re going to see something epic.”

WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of the NASCAR Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway, beginning with Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series season finale at 5:30 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.  Coverage continues on Sunday with the NASCAR Cup Series season finale at 2 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

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