Roger Diez: For all the marbles this weekend in Phoenix
After a tumultuous season with a schedule impacted by a nationwide pandemic, NASCAR is poised to crown its 2020 champion Sunday at Phoenix. The final elimination race at Martinsville featured a must-win driver scoring victory and the most dominant driver of the year falling short. And in Formula 1 a title was clinched with another on the brink.
NASCAR set its final four in all three touring series at Martinsville. This weekend’s championship rounds at Phoenix began yesterday with the Gander Outdoor truck series. 2018 champion Brett Moffit is the only past champ in the final four. The other three contenders are Sheldon Creed, Grant Enfinger, and Zane Smith. Today the Xfinity title race coverage on NBC Sports Network begins at 2 p.m. PST. The four in contention for the championship are Chase Briscoe, Justin Allgaier, Justin Haley, and Austin Cindric. Briscoe, with nine wins, is the favorite. Tomorrow is the NASCAR Cup finale with two former champions and two aspiring titlists in contention. The race will air at noon on NBC.
Chase Elliott scored his fourth win of the season last Sunday at Martinsville in convincing fashion and comes into Phoenix with massive momentum. Joey Logano won the Phoenix spring race this season and the fall event in 2016. He was also the 2018 Cup champion. Denny Hamlin, who shares with Mark Martin the title of most successful driver not to win a championship, took his second Phoenix race win last fall. And 2020 Cup champion Brad Keselowski rounds out the final four with no Phoenix victories. Altogether there are eight former Cup champions in the race as well as non-playoff drivers with good Phoenix stats who could pull off a victory tomorrow. Kevin Harvick, who narrowly missed the final four with a disappointing run at Martinsville, has nine Phoenix victories, most recently in March 2018. Kyle Busch has three Phoenix wins, with back-to-back scores in the fall of 2018 and spring 2019. And Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman split the wins in 2017. However, the 2020 champion doesn’t need to win the race. He just needs to beat the other three finalists. It’s like the old story about the two guys being chased by a bear. One says to the other, “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you!”
The oddsmakers have Harvick picked to win tomorrow, giving 7-2 odds. Hamlin and Elliott are tops among the playoff contenders at 5-1 each. Keselowski is at 11-2, with Logano a 13-2 bet. Among the non-playoff drivers, Kyle Busch is 8-1, Martin Truex Jr. 11-1, and Ryan Blaney 16-1. Odds drop off dramatically after that, but if you want a good dark horse bet you might want to go with Jimmie Johnson. A dollar bet on the seven-time champ will get you 65 if he pulls off the win in his final full-time Cup race.
In Formula 1 action, Mercedes clinched their seventh consecutive constructors’ championship last Sunday at Imola with another 1-2 finish. They have scored an unbeatable 479 points, 251 ahead of second-place Red Bull. Winner Lewis Hamilton celebrated the occasion by sharing a “shoey,” champaign from a racing boot, with third-place Daniel Ricciardo. And Hamilton could clinch his seventh driver’s title next weekend in Turkey with a win or a second place with the fastest lap. By scoring 19 points or more in the final four races, Hamilton will tie Michael Schumacher for the most championships. He has already surpassed Schumacher in total race wins with 92.
Finally, congratulations to the 2020 NHRA champions crowned at Las Vegas last weekend: Steve Torrence, Top Fuel; Matt Hagan, Funny Car; Erica Enders, Pro Stock; and Matt Smith, Pro Stock Motorcycle.