NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Friday Faceoff: Who Are the Championship Favorites?

Looking back at the Martinsville Speedway race in the NASCAR Cup Series, would you have officiated anything that happened there any differently? Or did the race play out as it should have?

Luken Glover: Chase Elliott asked the question, “What more could you ask for?” in his post-race interview. He was exactly right. That race absolutely provided the drama and impossible that can loom at Martinsville. The jackman on the No. 9 team made a legal and smart move by running back to the wall after jumping over too soon, so that was the right call. Kevin Harvick‘s move on Kyle Busch is what the playoffs and elimination races were made for (see: Ryan Newman at Phoenix Raceway in 2014).

The last one still makes me scratch my head. When Erik Jones was told not to pass Denny Hamlin, that was obviously a move (or lack thereof) to help a teammate, but it did hold some questions. NASCAR’s rulebook states that it wants its drivers to race to their best position possible. NASCAR also does not want intentional orders altering the outcome of a race and ultimately the points race. Look at Premium Motorsports, Spire Motorsports and Rick Ware Racing in 2019; those teams collaborated to ensure that the No. 27 would finish the highest in the points among the non-chartered cars. Each owner was fined $50,000 and the teams were docked 50 owner points. So while there is some more gray area around the Joe Gibbs Racing controversy, at least the No. 20 team should have been penalized. What did Jones have to lose, considering he is moving to Richard Petty Motorsports next season?

Zach Gillispie: NASCAR has put itself in a box where these wild race outcomes are prone to happen. The problem of policing these types of incidents is that if you do throw the book at a driver or team, 10 other things can easily get swept under the rug. Also, NASCAR has made it very clear that it doesn’t mind contradicting its own rules. The RWR and Premium fiasco last season apparently has become void in regards to Gibbs this season. Thus, you are always going to have people shaking their heads after these races, because no one seems to have any clear cohesiveness as to what the rules even are. So what does this even say about NASCAR? Instead of policing the competitors, NASCAR needs to police itself. When you overload yourself with rules and complicated points systems, you better be expecting the controversial outcomes on Sunday. A complete overhaul of simplification (and not a couple of stray Band-Aids as NASCAR has been prone to in the past) within the sport needs to be implemented as soon as possible before we have another serious, future-defining fiasco.

Joy Tomlinson: I wouldn’t have officiated anything differently. NASCAR made the right decision when it rescinded the penalty on Elliott, as the rule was still followed on that pit stop. And while Jones was instructed not to pass Hamlin in the closing laps, Harvick still lost positions at the end trying to pass/spin Busch. I get why there was frustrations after the race, but the playoffs played out as they were structured, no matter how unfortunate it may be.

Can a driver win the Cup championship without winning the final race?

Gillispie: Thirty-nine drivers are entered at Phoenix. Thirty-five of them are not in the playoffs. The odds would say yes, but history says no. But it’s 2020, so to heck with history.

Tomlinson: Absolutely, anything is possible. However, in Cup it’s more difficult than the other series, as many of the drivers tend to avoid getting in the way of the championship contenders. Also, a playoff driver has won the race in each of the past six years, though those events were all at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But this time, with Harvick not in the final four, he might go out to try to win the race and earn his 10th of the season.

Glover: Yes, it has just been hard to do. Non-playoff drivers have been very careful racing championship drivers in the past. Kyle Larson had many opportunities at Homestead to be aggressive and go for the win, but we saw him back off a lot of times. If a non-playoff driver were to have a dominant car, we would likely see them go for the win. Harvick and Ryan Blaney stick out as guys who have a shot to win this weekend and spoil the party, but it will be interesting to see how they will race the Championship 4 drivers.

Chase Briscoe seems to be the Xfinity Series title favorite; which of the other three will give him the most significant challenge?

Tomlinson: Justin Allgaier. He’s won there twice, including last fall. He led 85 laps en route to each victory. Additionally, Allgaier won both Richmond Raceway races and the first Dover International Speedway event this season. He’s really taken to the short tracks this season (except for Phoenix and Bristol Motor Speedway), so he should contend with his experience and the strength he’s shown this year.

Gillispie: Not to continue to rant about points and rules, but when you have one race decide a champion, you shouldn’t care about the favorite all season. By this logic, Chase Briscoe is not at all the favorite, period; Allgaier is. He statistically is the best driver with the most wins at Phoenix among the Championship 4. Case closed.

Glover: Allgaier has to be a threat there. Phoenix is arguably his best racetrack, with two wins, including one in the playoff race, last year. In the last seven races, Allgaier has led 50-plus laps in five of them and has four stage wins since 2018. He started out 2020 with consistently bad luck, but now he has three wins and some momentum from a runner-up finish at Martinsville. Austin Cindric should not be counted out either, but Allgaier has to be pretty confident heading to the desert.

Do any of the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series title hopefuls have the upper hand? Who takes home the big trophy?

Glover: Things are pretty evenly matched, but Grant Enfinger and Brett Moffitt have the most experience here, so that could be an advantage. However, all four have shown that they can have speed at many tracks, and Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith have caught on pretty quickly to trucks. In the end, it’s Enfinger for the trophy. Enfinger has shown a lot of patience and discipline this season and has come on strong at the end of races. He is coming off a win at Martinsville and has two straight top fives at Phoenix.

Gillispie: We could throw the stats book in your face once again, but there is one problem: Smith has never raced at Phoenix in the Truck Series. On paper, Moffitt seems to be the most accomplished at the desert mile, but Smith could easily do what he’s done all year: turn heads and take names. Yours truly picked him as the championship favorite at the onset of the postseason, much to the chagrin of several colleagues here at Frontstretch. It’s still 2020, of course, so don’t count him out.

Tomlinson: As far as experience goes, Enfinger and Moffitt both are strong contenders. Moffitt won at Phoenix in 2018, while Enfinger won at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville this year. However, Smith will be one to watch; he won at Dover after leading 50 laps and was third at Martinsville. Smith is my pick to win the championship in his rookie season.

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About Frank Velat

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Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

7 comments

  1. Avatar

    I had forgotten about the penalties assessed last year to those bottom teams because they were trying to game the points for charter eligibility.
    So it becomes apparent that NASCAR is unwilling to apply the same scrutiny to top teams that they do bottom teams. This is exactly why fans get so frustrated and angry at NASCAR’s penalty process.

  2. Avatar

    I believe the only really questionable call was the one not to penalize JGR for the “Do Not Pass” call. I also don’t understand why Jones, given his situation, didn’t just ignore the order and do his best to pass Hamlin. That one rankles and suggests that the top teams are getting away with team orders.

  3. Avatar

    I agree with Luken Glover… Harvick or Blaney could pull off a win, but so could Kyle Busch. He finally got the 2020 monkey off his back, and over the last eight cup races at Phoenix, Kyle has finished outside the top three only once. That’s pretty danged impressive.

    • Avatar

      If any of the “others” win at Phoenix, I hope it’s Kyle. Everybody talks about Harvick’s dominance at Phoenix, but in recent races there, Busch has been just as good.

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