Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin represent NASCAR’s “Championship 4,” the winner among them to be crowned series champion this weekend in Phoenix. All four have apparent strengths on 750-hp tracks like Phoenix, visible in the stat columns, promising that Sunday’s event will be a hotly contested tilt.
Recap: Upset occurs as Kevin Harvick is eliminated from playoffs
Kevin Harvick’s 17th-place finish last Sunday night in Martinsville failed to secure him a spot in the 2020 Championship 4, meaning his career-high nine wins this season won’t receive title consideration.
With the benefit of hindsight, his failure to advance makes a little more sense than it did immediately following his desperate attempt at spinning Kyle Busch to earn the position he needed. Four of his nine wins took place on non-drafting ovals over two miles in length, a style of track that has no representation on the playoff schedule and wasn’t the sign of championship-caliber strength it was popularly perceived to be. On a half-mile track last weekend, Harvick had the 17th-fastest car, which signals a result relative to his overall strength for the race. It was a tepid performance on a track that serves as one of his recent trouble spots.
When asked if he ever considered being eliminated in the cutoff race of the semifinal playoff round, he responded, “For sure, with the way that we’ve run here in the past.”
He finished 15th there this past spring and hasn’t finished better than fifth since 2011.
Harvick’s loss was Chase Elliott’s gain. Elliott, the popular 24-year-old for Hendrick Motorsports, dominated the event and locked himself into this weekend’s race as a championship-eligible driver. Sunday’s race appears to be a wide-open contest, evident in the NASCAR betting odds.
With retooled rules package, Phoenix now caters to the best and fastest
Elliott’s No. 9 car is the fastest in NASCAR this season, as measured by Motorsports Analytics. Whereas races on 550-hp tracks didn’t necessarily reward the fastest teams, a tinkering of the rules package used in Phoenix – a reduction of the spoiler size from eight inches to 2.75 inches, among other adjustments – opened up passing in the race that took place there in March.
The expected adjusted pass efficiency of the race winner – the percentage of pass encounters resulting in a positive pass – jumped by 5.5 percentage points based on the field-wide slope. Joey Logano cemented his win thanks to an extraordinarily high adjusted pass differential (plus-56) and 12 positions gained across six restart attempts from the preferred groove. It’s doubtful we’ll see a similar performance containing such a gaudy stat line, but the lesson is clear: passing is a viable option for those with the requisite speed.
Both Logano and Brad Keselowski, driving cars from Team Penske, have wins on 750-hp tracks on their records for the year, and while Logano is the previous Phoenix winner, Keselowski might be the driver to watch. He’s bringing with him a chassis that conquered New Hampshire and Richmond, also 750-hp tracks, earlier this season, and if he displays speed early in Sunday’s race, he’ll be tough to overtake. His overall average speed ranking (8.44) is in line with his average speed ranking in the fourth quarter of races specifically (8.89), meaning he’s able to sustain his car’s performance despite gains by his competition and changing track conditions.
Keselowski’s ability to sustain speed could be counteracted by Logano, Elliott and fellow championship contender Denny Hamlin, who each have fourth-quarter speed rankings better by 2.47, 2.39 and 1.71 spots, respectively, over their rankings for races as a whole.
Among the four, Elliott stands as the most efficient passer on 750-hp oval tracks with a plus-2.98 percent surplus, passing value that’s netted him 24 positions beyond the expectation of a car with his average running position. In total, his adjusted pass differential is plus-33. Hamlin (plus-1.37 percent SPV) is the only other plus passer of the four finalists; Logano (minus-0.67 percent) and Keselowski (minus-1.49 percent) have proven inefficient across a full slate of races on 750-hp tracks.
Drivers ineligible for the championship are bringing firepower to Phoenix
It’s easy to lose sight of the 35 other drivers in the race on Sunday, and several of them are realistic threats for the victory.
Harvick had the fastest car in Phoenix this past spring, earning his best finish – second – of the four races completed prior to the COVID-19 pause. His poor performance on the flat, tight-cornered half-mile track in Martinsville should have no bearing on the possibility of a good showing on the quirky, dog-legged mile-long track in Phoenix. In fact, prior to NASCAR’s horsepower and downforce shifts, he won seven times in 13 races there between 2013 and 2018. Among the non-playoff set, he’s the driver with the best betting odds in advance of the weekend.
Close behind is Kyle Busch, who scored his first win of an otherwise dismal 2020 season two weeks ago in Texas: His plus-6.85 percent surplus passing value on 750-hp tracks ranks as the best in the Cup Series, and his single-race speed in Phoenix this spring ranked fifth. Given the nature of the passing dynamic, it’s a plausible expectation he’ll move through traffic without much hindrance like he did in the spring race, scoring 14 positions on four non-preferred groove restart attempts (or 2.8 positions more than the field-wide average per attempt inside the first seven rows).
Ryan Blaney represents the final third of Penske’s triumvirate of drivers, and while he hasn’t enjoyed the success of stablemates Logano and Keselowski, his speed is proving true. His car ranks faster in Central Speed on this track type than that of championship contender Hamlin and he stands as a plus passer. He earned a pair of third-place finishes in Phoenix last year, though that came prior to the reduction in spoiler size.
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David Smith is a writer and analyst for MotorsportsAnalytics.com and the co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast. Prior to BetMGM, he was a contributor for The Washington Post, NASCAR.com and The Athletic. He previously served 13 years as a NASCAR driver talent scout on behalf of sports agencies MMI, Spire and RSMG