The green flag will wave for the last time of this 2020 NASCAR season Sunday at 3 p.m. There are 4 playoff drivers remaining, and the first one across the finish line after 312 laps around Phoenix Raceway will be crowned the 2020 Cup Series champion. The 4 drivers in contention are Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliot and Joey Logano.
It’s not the final 4 I projected. I originally thought Hamlin and Logano would make the championship alongside Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Many fans thought the Cup Series would go to Kevin Harvick, as did I, so that cold take is a bit disappointing.
Harvick is only missing the championship because of NASCAR’s current points structure. To qualify for the championship, a driver needs to sustain success throughout the entirety of the playoffs. Harvick unfortunately couldn’t do that. He won 2 of the first 3 playoff races, but struggled down the final stretch. This all culminated in Harvick trying to wreck Kyle Busch on the final lap of last weeks’ race at Martinsville. If successful, the move would’ve allowed Harvick to gain 1 more point and qualify for the championship. But, the #4 car wound up spinning out and dropping even further.
That being said, Harvick had an unbelievable season. He won 9 races, came in the top 10 almost 75% of the time, completed every race and finished all but 3 laps on the season. It’s one of the greatest seasons in history, and easily the best by a driver in the millennium, so far. If NASCAR were still using the structure that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt had raced under, Harvick would have clinched the championship already. But, I can’t truly judge the system too harshly because I’m a pretty fresh fan myself.
I started watching NASCAR 4 years ago during Martin Truex Jr.’s championship season. The playoff structure prioritizes final lap mayhem and entertainment value, and NASCAR has to protect their product. So, I can’t really blame them for trying to keep things exciting.
This year’s championship 4 has a solid mix of experienced winners and hungry newcomers. Logano and Keselowski have each won a championship before, Logano in 2018 and Keselowski in 2012. Hamlin, who finished 2nd during the regular season, also finished 2nd in the 2010 Cup Series, but that’s as close as he’s come. For Elliott, it’s his first final 4, but the kid has championship pedigree in his blood. The 24-year-old is the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who beat Rusty Wallace for the championship in 1988. Now, the younger Elliot will look to add the family trophy case in 2020.
Oddsmakers have Hamlin and Elliott even at +240, with Logano at +260 and Keselowski at +300 for the championship. Hamlin is a veteran who has consistently raced well over the season. Elliott has the hot hand, with wins in 2 of the last 4 races. So, it’s no surprise that they are the “favorites.”
I tried to pick a winner from these 4, but I can’t realistically count any of these drivers out. After the season Hamlin had, this may be his best shot to win a championship. Elliott is driving where NASCAR is going. He’s a consistent winner when NASCAR hits road courses and has been on fire lately. Out of these 4 drivers, Logano most recently won the championship, so he knows what it takes to grab the checkered flag. Keselowski’s #2 Miller Lite Ford has been an iconic part of NASCAR for the better part of this decade. It wouldn’t surprise me if he grabbed another championship in 2020 either.
Simply put, this championship will be worth a watch on Sunday afternoon. If you tune in, you’ll also get to see the end of an era, as Jimmie Johnson participates in his last NASCAR race as a full time Cup Series driver. A lot to look out for, and it should be a bumper to bumper finish to see who grabs the checkers.