Storylines Abound At Championship 4

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2020

Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin will be fighting for the Cup championship at Phoenix on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Though the field for the 2020 Championship 4 may almost as notable for which drivers are not included, there is still a fair amount of intrigue accompanying those who actually will be competing.

All four contenders come with interesting storylines, and that should make watching Sunday’s title-bestowing race at the Phoenix mile at least mildly entertaining for those who would rather watch stock car racing than pro football.

Notable by their absence, and, thus, a good reason to keep the remote channel changer in hand on Sunday, will be top wheelmen Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. A final four consisting of those three and Denny Hamlin would have made for a better field for those who want the four best drivers battling for the title. (The race will be televised by NBC, which is another good reason to keep the remote handy because that is where the mute button lives.)

Entertaining fans with their storylines, especially in television markets that will be showing dog NFL games, will be Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin and Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott.

Just what’s so entertaining about these four? This:

Logano: The object of Mark Martin’s enthusiastic and flowery predictions at a time well before he fired up his first Cup engine, Logano has grown from a John Hughes teen-movie impish dude, into an adult trouble maker.

He’s gone from having sand kicked in his face 36 weekends a year (and even more often than that by his teammates) during his Joe Gibbs Racing days, to being the punk-ish, wait until the bell signaling the end of recess is about to ring and then push and run from somebody smaller during his Team Penske days.

As a result, Logano is not well liked – in the garages or in the grandstands. Kyle Busch, never a candidate for most beloved driver among fans, famously said this year that Logano has no friends when green flags are waving.

Logano’s PR problem with fans were likely dialed up even higher at Martinsville on Sunday when he  made enemies on the team of NASCAR’s most popular driver – Elliott. Close contact with Elliott  – again – prompted Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, to label Logano a f-ing “hack”. 

Though possessed of considerable driving chops – he won the 2018 Cup championship – Logano has become a hate magnate and that could hurt his chances at Phoenix. If he dumps the wrong person on Sunday, or if there is somebody out there clinging to a grudge for reasons of past on-track Logano crimes, real or imagined, Sliced Bread could become ground beef.

Elliott: America loves its heroes. Even those who in no way warrant being considered heroes. That last group does not include Elliott. 

A couple years back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the most popular driver in NASCAR.

Some of that popularity was tied to the love the sport had for his father – a driver who had come to symbolize everything NASCAR and its fans thought their sport stood for. Much of the adoration was tied to Junior’s genuineness.

Earnhardt Jr. had very good talent on the track. He won 26 Cup Series races and and back-to-back Xfinity Series races before that. But he was not in his father’s league as a wheelman; you can count the number of drivers who were in that league on one hand. And those few people who are Earnhardt Jr. detractors love to point that out.

Elliott shares some similarities with Junior: famous father, winning personality and good but not great success on the track. 

But that could all change 500 laps from now for the 24-year-old Elliott. He’s in the Championship 4 and he’s in it thanks to a great drive in a must-win race at the Martinsville short track last Sunday.

Should he go back-to-back in the final two races of the season, it’s good-bye to any and all thoughts that Elliott is simply a daddy’s boy with an engaging personality. 

A win in Phoenix would give him five on the season. The odd oval in the desert has been a decent track for Elliott. His best finish is second in his nine starts but he’s led 249 laps and his average finish is 13th. Wouldn’t it be jolly for Cup’s most-liked driver to take the title away from its least-liked.

Hamlin: Speaking of Mark Martin…Hamlin has been racing Cup cars for 16 years. He’s won a rock-solid total of 44 Cup races. Equally solid are his 178 top-five finishes. He has won the last two Daytona 500s and three in all.

Were he to announce his immediate retirement before Sunday’s race, he would have a great shot at being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He will be a lock for the Hall on the first ballot if he wins the title at Phoenix.

The only gap on Hamlin’s resume is the same gap in Martin’s: the zeros in the Cup Championships column.

Hamlin is about to turn 40 years old. That hardly makes him a senior citizen in NASCAR. But it does it does serve notice that his shots at championships are numbered and will be harder to come by.

You’ve got to believe that Hamlin dearly wants that resume fleshed out with a championship and you’ve got to believe that he is thinking that 2020 could be his last best chance to avoid displacing Martin at the top of the list of driver’s who’ve had great careers but who have never won a Cup championship.

While Elliott rolls into Phoenix with a good, stiff breeze at his back, Hamlin does not. In his last four outings, he has finished 15th, 15th, ninth and 11th. Some in the media who feel a need to just keep talking have brought up the idea that Hamlin’s decision earlier in the fall to become a team owner with ex-b-baller Michael Jordan may be affecting his on-track performance. Nah.

Hamlin’s Championship 4-leading seven victories have been spread fairly evenly across the schedule. So maybe he’s due. 

He’s won twice at Phoenix in his 30 starts and has a respectable average finish of 11th. It’s a pretty safe bet that Hamlin will be digging and scraping at Phoenix as though his racing legacy depended on him getting a win.

Keselowski: In 2011, legendary team owner Roger Penske tossed Keselowski the keys to what was once known as The Blue Deuce – the No. 2 car which Rusty Wallace helped make famous. Keselowski, who had won just one race in 53 Cup starts up to that point, has responded with a solid career for Penske. He won the 2012 Cup championship and has handed The Captain 33 race victories.

The 36-year-old Keselowski is at the peak of his career. He’s won three or more races in each of the last four seasons. He has four wins this year with the last one coming eight races ago at Richmond.

The quirky personality, which at times made it seem like he was trying too hard to win the love of the fans, has been matured out of existence. What remains is a reliable wheelman who can be terrific when his equipment suits him.

A championship on Sunday would lift the Michigan native out of that group of drivers of old who are one-time champions and religated to the status of good but not great. Yes, a second championship by Keselowski would go along way to removing him from the ranks of “journeyman” drivers.

Keselowski has been a journeyman at Phoenix. He has yet to win in 22 starts. He has finished second once, but his average finishing position of 13.5 is middling at best.

Keselowski will have something that in any other race would be considered a plus – a teammate. But on Sunday, that may represent a minus. His teammate is Logano. Not only can Keselowski not expect any help from his Penske teammate, he can expect trouble. 

The two have fought each other for every inch of track in races past. They exchanged paint and unpleasantries. That had to “talk” about Logano’s propensity to throw crazy, dangerous blocks at his teammate.

If Keselowski and Logano are near the front of the field over the championship-deciding laps at Phoenix, the race may end with them having another “talk” in the moments after the race.

Both Hamlin and Elliott will have teammates on the track Sunday, but you can bet they and their crews and owners will be having talks before the race and will enjoy full cooperation during it.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2020
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