NASCAR Barometer: Elliott Wins Phoenix and 2020 Championship

NASCAR Barometer: Elliott Wins Phoenix and 2020 Championship

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

The NASCAR Cup Series championship format has meant that to win the championship, a driver must win the final race. That not only happened Sunday in the first championship finale to be held at Phoenix Raceway, but the Championship 4 actually did the fans one better and swept the top four places in a thrilling season conclusion that saw Chase Elliott seize control of the race and lift the championship trophy for the first time in his career. It was the first time the year's most popular driver honoree also won the series title since his dad Bill Elliott did it in 1988.

The race started with Joey Logano jumping out to an early lead, battling fellow championship contender Denny Hamlin in the early segments. Brad Keselowski kept himself in the mix and had superb long-run speed, which served him well in a race with very few cautions. Elliott's day was more complex, however. Failing prerace inspection meant he relinquished his pole position and had to start at the back of the field. After the competition caution he was right back in the fight, though, with one of the fastest cars on track. He put that speed to use as he overtook Logano one last time to drive away to the race win and the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

UPGRADE

Chase Elliott – Elliott was the first to make a mistake during the championship weekend, but it wasn't enough to hold him back from winning the race and his

The NASCAR Cup Series championship format has meant that to win the championship, a driver must win the final race. That not only happened Sunday in the first championship finale to be held at Phoenix Raceway, but the Championship 4 actually did the fans one better and swept the top four places in a thrilling season conclusion that saw Chase Elliott seize control of the race and lift the championship trophy for the first time in his career. It was the first time the year's most popular driver honoree also won the series title since his dad Bill Elliott did it in 1988.

The race started with Joey Logano jumping out to an early lead, battling fellow championship contender Denny Hamlin in the early segments. Brad Keselowski kept himself in the mix and had superb long-run speed, which served him well in a race with very few cautions. Elliott's day was more complex, however. Failing prerace inspection meant he relinquished his pole position and had to start at the back of the field. After the competition caution he was right back in the fight, though, with one of the fastest cars on track. He put that speed to use as he overtook Logano one last time to drive away to the race win and the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

UPGRADE

Chase Elliott – Elliott was the first to make a mistake during the championship weekend, but it wasn't enough to hold him back from winning the race and his first series title. The team failed prerace inspection twice and lost its pole position as punishment. Elliott rapidly drove forward and was in contention at the front of the field by the end of the first stage, however. It was clear he had the car to beat Sunday and he didn't make any more mistakes on his way to Victory Lane and the 2020 championship. Elliott pulled off two clutch wins in the playoffs at Charlotte and Martinsville, won in back-to-back weeks to win the title, and cemented himself as a star in the sport.

Joey Logano – Logano started Sunday's championship battle out front. He dominated the opening stage, keeping all of his fellow competitors behind. Despite having an extremely quick machine, it was just a touch behind Elliott, and Logano lost out on a second title despite earning his 12th top-five finish of the season. Overall, it was a great season for Logano despite him missing out on the championship. In 2020 Logano got out of the gate early with wins in Las Vegas and Phoenix before taking a bit of time to find his groove after the season resumed in May. He started the playoffs with back-to-back third-place finishes and then added a win at Kansas to get to the Championship 4.

Brad Keselowski – A slow pit stop early in the race put Keselowski behind the rest of the championship contenders, leaving him to play catch-up. In the second stage, he was one of the first to pit under green-flag conditions due to a vibration, but came back strongly to win the segment. While he was one of quietest of the Championship 4 Sunday, he still managed to score a runner-up finish in a 1-2-3-4 finish of championship combatants. Keselowski admitted early in the season that he didn't have the fastest machine, but he kept himself in the game and won races regardless of that. Except for a brief slide in results in the middle of the playoffs he overcame the odds and advanced to the Championship 4 and was one of the most consistent top-10 finishers throughout the entire season.

Denny Hamlin - Hamlin seemed to be the heir apparent to hoist the championship trophy on Sunday after rival Kevin Harvick failed to advance to the finale. Hamlin started Sunday's race quick but fell behind the three other championship contenders as the race went on. While Hamlin didn't have what it took to race for the win or the title, he still finished ahead of the rest of the field on the day the trophy was awarded. NASCAR's format of playoff eliminations capped with a winner-take-all finale means that final four appearances may be just as valuable as actual titles in the series. Hamlin picked up another one of those with his seven-win season in 2020, but his quest for that first series title will continue in 2021.

DOWNGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Despite having an incredible season, Harvick came up woefully short in the playoffs. He and the team blew a points lead that would have easily put any other championship contender into the championship finale, and he failed to advance to Phoenix in championship contention by a point. Fantasy players expected him to come out with something to prove in Phoenix, one of his best tracks, after missing out on the championship battle. He didn't. If Harvick had been in the championship battle, he would have been handily outmatched by the other three contenders at Phoenix. Harvick was barely a top-10 runner at one of his best tracks on a day he had a chip on his shoulder. While 2020 was a success with nine victories, it ended with a whimper, and there is work to be done this winter.

Kyle Busch – To say the 2020 season was a disappointment for Busch would be a significant understatement. Fantasy players guessing that Busch would not be among the final eight championship competitors, let alone the final four, would have been scoffed at when the season began. Nonetheless, Busch spent most of the year locked out of Victory Lane. It wasn't until the playoff race at Texas, after Busch had already been eliminated, that he finally got the job done and scored his only win of the year. Despite 14 top-fives and 20 top-10s, Busch's 2020 season was a failure in many respects. This driver and team are going to get to work this winter to correct what went wrong and hopefully give fantasy players more confidence and success in 2021.

Alex Bowman – Bowman's 2020 playoff run limped off the track after such an impressive run of form. The driver of the No. 88 was one of the more impressive young drivers in the playoffs with seven top-10 finishes in the most important races of the season. He made it all the way to the penultimate round of eliminations and gained experience with every step to use in the future. However, once he hit the track at Phoenix, that speed seemed to leave him. He battled to get inside the top 20 and ended the afternoon with a 16th-place finish, which was his first finish outside of the top 15 since Bristol in September. Bowman has proven playoff experience and moves to the No. 48 next season. Fantasy players will expect him to fill the big shoes left in that car by Jimmie Johnson.

Matt Kenseth – It was never going to be fair to expect Kenseth to step back into full-time Cup Series racing and expect him to demonstrate the form he had when he stepped away. When Kyle Larson was released from Chip Ganassi Racing it was an opportunity Kenseth couldn't turn down, though. Initially the move seemed like a stroke of genius after Kenseth's debut in the car at Darlington produced a top-10 finish. Unfortunately, just one other top-10 finish was left to be claimed. Kenseth's runner-up finish in the Brickyard 400 was the only other top-10 finish the pairing managed to produce. Ganassi announced Ross Chastain as the full-time driver of the No. 42 machine next season, which leaves Kenseth out of the car again in 2021.

Erik Jones – Jones endured one of the more difficult years he has experienced. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver missed the playoffs and lost his ride with the championship-winning team. After a few weeks of uncertainty, Jones found his home for 2021 with Richard Petty Motorsports and starting showing what he is capable of with top finishes in the playoffs. He quickly rattled off five top-10 finishes once the elimination rounds got underway as he raced for his future in the series. Those performances turned heads, but consistency is what he will need to find for the future. Despite those top finishes, he ended the playoffs with three finishes outside of the top 20 in the last four races. Fantasy players will need to take a cautious approach to him in 2021 as he acclimates to his new surroundings.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson delivered one of the most impressive NASCAR Cup Series careers in history. His seven championships matched Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. While the past few seasons left him unable to replicate that success, he continued to work hard to find speed and get back to the front. His final full-time race in the series at Phoenix was a perfect example of that. With less than 50 laps remaining in a race, the four championship contenders dominated the day, Johnson was just behind in fifth. Next season Johnson will move to IndyCar and drive the road course races for Chip Ganassi Racing, and he also said he has his eye on some sportscar starts as well. Sunday's finale in Phoenix was a fitting farewell to one of the most impressive drivers in series history.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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