The field is set for this weekend’s championship round for the NASCAR Craftsman Trucks, the Xfinity series, and the NASCAR Cup. It’s the fourth year since the season finale moved from Miami-Homestead to the 1-mile flat Phoenix oval. The first two Phoenix championship rounds went to Hendrick drivers — Chase Elliott in 2020 and Kyle Larson in 2021. Last year, Joey Logano won his second title in a Penske Ford. Sunday’s championship round features a pair of Hendrick Chevrolets for Larson and William Byron, another Penske Ford driven by Ryan Blaney, and the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Christopher Bell. None of these drivers need to win the race to take the 2023 NASCAR Cup championship, although one of the four finalists usually does win. The highest finisher of those four will be the champion regardless of stage points or finishing positions. However, unlike other sports, the four title-seekers will have to contend with 32 other drivers hungry to finish out the season with a victory. And recently eliminated playoff contenders like Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick, and Chris Buescher have something to prove. Last week’s elimination round was particularly bitter for Hamlin, whose third-place finish at Martinsville was just short of enough points to advance. Neither he nor Truex were able to overcome their disastrous DNF results from the previous weekend at Homestead.
Only two of the four championship contenders have won at Phoenix — Byron this spring and Larson’s championship win two years ago. Non-contenders with Phoenix wins include past champions Logano with three and Elliott with his 2020 title victory. Kyle Busch has three wins there, Hamlin two, and Chase Briscoe and Truex have one apiece. But the granddaddy of them all is Kevin Harvick with nine Phoenix victories, the latest in 2018. It is Harvick’s final NASCAR Cup race and nobody in the field has more experience or motivation to post a win tomorrow. The Craftsman Trucks raced last night and today Xfinity qualifies at 12:30 p.m. and races at 4 p.m. with Cup qualifying in between at 1:35 p.m. All will air on USA. Sunday, NBC will broadcast the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at noon. Opening odds favor Larson at 3-2 with Blaney 11-4, Byron 16-5, and Bell 9-2. Harvick is the favorite non-contender at 15-1.
Last week’s Formula 1 race in Mexico turned into heartbreak on the first lap. Max Verstappen’s Red Bull passed both of the first row Ferraris on the run to turn 1 and went into the corner side by side with polesitter Charles Leclerc. But Sergio Perez, eager to lead his home race, attempted to go three-wide on the outside, an overly optimistic move with predictable results. Contact with Leclerc spun him into the escape road with parts flying. Perez limped his Red Bull back to the pits and retired, much to the chagrin of his countrymen. Tire strategy and a handy red flag kept Verstappen in front, finishing 13.8 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. Leclerc hung on for third, only to be roundly booed during post-race interviews by the partisan crowd, which blamed him for the collision with Perez. The race stewards disagreed, with no penalty for Leclerc in the incident. Hamilton’s second place plus a point for fastest lap moved him to within 20 points of Perez for second in driver points while Ferrari is just 22 points behind Mercedes in the constructors’ championship battle. The Sao Paulo Grand Prix of Brazil is Sunday and it’s another sprint race weekend with extra points available today. The Sprint race airs today at 11:30 a.m. on ESPNews with the race Sunday at 9 a.m. on ESPN2.