NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Season Finale 500 at Phoenix

What happened?

Chase Elliott won the 2020 Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (Nov. 8) after leading a race-high 153 laps. More importantly, he won his first NASCAR Cup Series title in his first Championship 4 appearance.

Other title contenders Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin finished second through fourth. Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five in his final start driving the No. 48.

How did it happen?

Prior to the race, seven-time champion Johnson was honored by nearly everyone at the track before his final full-time start with Hendrick Motorsports.

CHEEK: Jimmie Johnson Says ‘His Heart Is Full’

Before racing began, Elliott surrendered his pole position and started in the back after failing pre-race inspection twice. The No. 9 Chevrolet wasted no time getting to the front, as he carved through to field up to 10th by the lap 30 competition caution. Logano took advantage of Elliott’s penalty to pace the field and led the first 30 laps.

After the pit stops and ensuing restart, Elliott worked his way to the front and joined his competitors in the first four positions. Logano, Hamlin, Elliott and Keselowski set the pace for the remainder of the 75-lap stage, as Logano led all green flag laps to take stage one. 

The action picked up in stage two with Logano, Hamlin and Elliott battling it out for the lead throughout much of the early run. The PJ1 traction compound began to wear off as the track changed, making green-flag stops critical for track position. Logano and Keselowski both complained of vibrations as pit stops neared, and they came with a cost. Keselowski faded to fourth while Logano gave up the lead to Elliott after a valiant effort.

Keselowski pitted before the others, then Logano came before Elliott and Hamlin finally entered together. The No. 2 came out in front due to the short-pit strategy, but Elliott and Hamlin both passed him before a caution came out for James Davison with 30 laps to go in the second stage.

On the restart, Elliott pulled ahead and Keselowski followed close behind. The No. 2 took the lead briefly, then the No. 9 got it back. In an intense last-lap slugfest, Keselowski edged Elliott in the final corner to earn the stage two win.

Elliott took the lead on pit road and pulled away from his competitors on the restart. Logano stayed within a second for most of the run, though he could never get close enough to threaten for the top spot. For most of the run before green flag stops, Elliott, Logano and Keselowski were within one second of each other as Hamlin lost ground in fourth.

With 54 laps remaining, Logano and Hamlin hit pit road. One lap later, Elliott and Keselowski followed. Logano reentered the track with a 1.5-second lead over Elliott, with Hamlin third and Keselowski a distant fourth after a slow stop.

Just eight laps later, Elliott flexed his muscle and got aggressive to pass Logano for the lead. The No. 22 was no match on speed at that point, as his car just didn’t look the same on the final run.

The race stayed green for the entire final stage, allowing Elliott to lead the final 43 laps to win the race and the title. It was Elliott’s fifth win of the season, 11th of his career and first at Phoenix. He closed 2020 with three wins in the final five races, including back-to-back victories to earn his first career title.

With the win, the Elliotts become the third father-son duo to capture Cup Series championships. At age 24, Chase is the third-youngest champion in series history.

Who stood out?

Elliott has cemented himself as one of the sport’s best drivers. Yeah, I’m telling you the champion is one of the sport’s best drivers. Duh. How could he not be? Well, before the season, that wasn’t exactly true. Entering 2020, drivers like Kyle Busch, Harvick, Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano and Martin Truex Jr. were all considered bigger threats. 

Now, Elliott has a five-win season and a championship on his resume. He won a title before Hamlin and now has as many as Harvick, Keselowski, Logano and Truex. As Hendrick Motorsports transitions out of the Jimmie Johnson Era, the 2020s are now looking like it could be the Chase Elliott Era.

STURNIOLO: Alan Gustafson also celebrates first title as Cup crew chief

Speaking of Johnson, he went out in the best way possible with his final start. The No. 48 was fast all day and he ended up the highest of the non-title competitors. Had there been a late-race caution, you have to wonder if there could’ve been a storybook ending for Johnson.

Phoenix was just his fifth top five of the season; Johnson wound up 18th in the final standings. Still, 2020 was a successful final season for the seven-time champion. Why? He had just five top fives combined in 2018 and 2019! His performance was much better after a two-year slump and Johnson went out on a respectable note.

Who fell flat?

I’ll use this space to discuss the three championship contenders who came up short.

Keselowski had the most volatile day of the four drivers and ultimately played second fiddle. At the end of the second stage, Keselowski showed he could beat Elliott head-to-head in a short sprint. The car was fast and he was clearly hungry to get that second title.

The problem all day for the No. 2 Ford was the pit crew. He lost four or more spots on two yellow flag pit stops. Most importantly, the final green flag stop left Keselowski over four seconds behind. He entered battling close behind Elliott and Logano and the crew just didn’t get it done (14.8 seconds according to NBC’s timing). A second title would be massive for Keselowski’s legacy but the 2012 Cup champ has to wait another year.

ALBINO: Keselowski on another title run falling short

Logano looked to have the most speed to challenge Elliott before his car went away on the final run. In the first stage, the No. 22 car looked lights out. He opened the second stage similarly, but once Logano lost the lead, he struggled to get it back. Pitting one lap before Elliott on the final green flag cycle put him out front and it only took eight laps for the No. 9 to breeze back by.

Just 30 years old, Logano still has plenty of time to build on his title count. He’s still on track to become a multi-time champion and win a bunch more races. But any time you lose a chance at a title, it has to sting, especially when you lead 125 laps and look so capable. 

The most puzzling performance of the day belonged to Hamlin… or did it? If you’ve been watching closely (or reading this column!), you know the No. 11 wasn’t at its best in the playoffs. Just three top 10s in the first nine playoff races doesn’t matter when you get to the championship, but it was a clear sign this team didn’t have the mojo it rode to co-title favorite with Kevin Harvick earlier this year.

For Hamlin, 2020 will go down as another missed opportunity. It was arguably his best season (seven wins, 18 top fives) and he only has a fourth place to show for it. This is the second straight year he finished last among the Championship 4, and as Hamlin enters his age 40 season, time is ticking.

CHEEK: Hamlin Speaks On Another ‘Oh-So-Close’ Run For A Title

What did this race prove?

Hendrick Motorsports is ready for the next chapter. Sunday just felt like a passing of the torch in all senses. Between Johnson running near the front and Elliott winning his first championship while adorning Johnson’s yellow numbers, it had everything for HMS. Youngster William Byron – pairing with Chad Knaus, also in his final race – finished ninth, too.

Next season, HMS adds Kyle Larson to its already impressive young stable of drivers. Hendrick now has a champion and three race winners all under the age of 30 locked up under contract. Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske might have more overall talent, but Hendrick delivered in 2020 and looks like the team of the future.

GABLE: How Hendrick Motorsports Turned Things Around

The Championship 4 contenders deliver every year, regardless of the drivers or track. Since NASCAR went to the new playoff format in 2014, the champion has won the final race every year. Many thought that could change after Harvick was eliminated and those concerns were quickly put to rest. (Harvick never threatened up front and settled for seventh).

Nobody outside the Championship 4 threatened all day. They were routinely first through fourth, with one occasionally dropping to fifth. It’s the second time in the elimination-style era that the Championship 4 have finished in the top four spots (2018).

Johnson’s impact and presence in the sport will be dearly missed. He went winless in his final three full-time seasons, but just having Jimmie around made things feel bigger. On and off the track, no one is better than Seven-Time. Johnson is truly one of the all-time greats and it’s a shame he didn’t get that final defining win like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart did.

Going forward, Johnson will run a partial schedule with Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar. He did leave the door open to run some Cup races in the future, but that’s all unknown as of now. What we do know is that he won’t race his legendary No. 48 in the Cup Series again. As expected, his competitors who tried and failed to defeat him for so many years paid their proper respects.

ALBINO: A Look Back at Johnson’s Cup Career

Paint scheme of the weekend

At the final race of the season, the majority of teams ran their traditional sponsor and paint scheme combination. One that stood out as a bit different was Johnson, who ran a silver version of his white Ally Chevy. It was a subtle change that really looked sharp in the desert.

Better than last year?

Last year, Phoenix hosted the penultimate race. It was a day dominated by Hamlin, who needed a win to punch his ticket to Homestead-Miami Speedway and got the job done. Overall, the race was a dud in terms of passing and lead changes. With Phoenix set to host the title race the following year, the event prompted NASCAR to implement the new short track package we saw in 2020.

This year, there were even fewer caution flags for on-track incidents. Still, I thought the racing was vastly improved. The short track package allows for passing all throughout the field and that showed on Sunday. At different points all afternoon, it seemed like any of the four title contenders could win. While the finish wasn’t as exciting, Sunday was a good example of a race that can be entertaining without many wrecks and cautions. 2020’s version of the fall Phoenix race was a big improvement for 2019’s.

Playoff picture

The season is complete, with Elliott winning the title. Keselowski, Logano and Hamlin followed him across the finish line. As far as the other 12 drivers, here’s how the entire points standings shook out:

What’s next?

Well… that’s it! NASCAR’s offseason is finally here after a grueling schedule since returning from the COVID-19 pandemic break in May. The next time cars hit the track will be the Daytona 500 in February. Stick with Frontstretch all offseason for the latest news and analysis to get your racing fix and thanks for reading all season!

HENDERSON: More Season Finale 500 Post-Race Analysis

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

16 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kb

Sad this insanity/hype of hysterics has Johnson and is family ALONE with social distancing guidelines covered with bullshit face diapers. Not a pic I would like, imo ! Wake up people! Sad….Not a fan of him, never was. But seeing him going out with this bs edicts speaks volumes as to what we have allowed morons to lord over us!

Mike

You got that right. Look up Eric Peters Auto & an article called “If Face Diapers Work . . . How Come They’re Not Working?”.

Tina

Because morons like you won’t wear them

John W.

Very convenient that the top 4 were the top 4 most of the race. And to top it off Jimmie gets a rare top 5. Very convenient.

DoninAjax

I was surprised they didn’t wave him up to second place. Letting him win would have driven Brian to drink.

rg72

This author isn’t the least bit suspicious that the Championship 4 was up front nearly the entire day?
A bag of candy in front of a kid on Halloween provides more resistance than the field did on the “epic” Chase run from the back of the pack.

Bill B

If there is one fatal flaw of this format, it’s the fact that it’s become painfully obvious that the non-contenders are drones, out there just to look pretty and make the optics look better that there really is a race going on. I was fine with no cautions but I am not fine with the 4 contenders being up front all day because the rest of the field has decided (or been told) not to race them. It cheapens the event, the championship and the sport. Statistically speaking, the 4 contenders running 1st – 4th the entire race, should not be able to happen unless no one is trying. Was there one other race this year where the same 4 drivers ran in the top 4 positions the entire race? I don’t think so. It was also fishy that Johnson ran 5th in is final race and that Harvick, one of the best ever at Phoenix and a front-runner all year, never was a threat for a top 5 finish. What a crock it all is.

With that said, I am happy that Chase won and equally happy that Hamlin did not. I don’t know why but I’ve never been able to find any love for Hamlin. I was hoping either Chase or Kes would be champ. (I never enjoyed watching someone celebrate more than the year Keselowski won. He started drinking beer in victory lane and kept at it all evening. It was hilarious watching him get more and more hammered in subsequent interviews as the evening went on.) I still feel the most deserving driver was Harvick but, thanks to this arbitrary format, here we are.

I am hesitant to read into the future about either Chase or HMS based on this year and the fact that they won the championship. The word arbitrary keeps popping up in my head and it would have regardless of which of the 4 won because, once again, Harvick probably had the best season. Still, as I said a few weeks ago, no matter what the ranking of each of the big 4 teams at any given moment, none of them are ever that far off the mark with respect to the others that anyone should write them off.

janice

Bill B – i wonder if they told blaney to stop mixing it up with the 4 contenders, as he kind of disappeared.

DoninAjax

The 88 was too close to the front for a while too til he got the word too.

iceman202290

Brads a Michigan boy, thats what we do! :)

Happy Chase won and nice to see Chevy win the championship.

As for the top 4. I always wondered if the 4 drivers had an advantage. Look, these guys on the track are competitors, they race hard at every level, so I find it very difficult to believe they are riding around so that the final 4 can stink up the show. At Homestead last couple years I have wondered if the final 4 just have more HP. At least at Homestead with tire wear, that advantage can be negated somewhat due to an ill handling car. But Pheonix seems to have backed this up. Hamlin could not get his car to turn worth a crap and still held onto 4th and to me appeared to be getting off the corner faster than competitors behind him. Heck all race long those 4 cars just had no issue passing their competitors. To me, something smells here.

Carl D.

This was an anticlimactic finish to a decent season. If you weren’t one of the four playoff contenders, or Jimmie Johnson, Why bother to show up?

Jo

I really wish people here would stop bitching about the formant and give Elliott his due. Some of you have said if there is to be a playoff system, the eliminated drivers should not even be in the race. So, basically, you got what you wanted. The battle all day was among the Top Four and one driver and team stood head and shoulders above the rest.

When he first came to Cup, Chase had a lot of doubters, people wondering if he was another “Silver Spoon Kid.” Over the last couple seasons, his improvement has been dramatic. He is the King of the road courses, has mastered the short tracks in a way his father never did, and this year won races at both 1.5 mile track and a one-mile track. He is the real deal and if he continues to improve, the future will be scary for his competition.

Jo

“format” Why doesn’t FS have an edit feature?

I would also add that winning under pressure is also the mark of a champion. The kid who gave away races early in his career now finishes with a flourish.

DoninAjax

Chase has finished 10th, 5th, 6th, 10th and 1st in the last five seasons.

In the last seven seasons, Kyle, Kevin, Jimmie, Martin. Joey, Kyle and Chase have won the last event and the title.

Tom B

So if you fail pre-race inspection twice you have to start at the rear of the field. But do you have to fix your car to pass inspection before the start of the race. Just wondering because this was never covered by the four crack race analysts. They couldn’t figure out the corner turn numbers after being there 3 days.

Iceman202290

Yes, the issue has to be resolved and you must pass inspection. Fail a 3rd time and penalty is much more severe

Example below
nascar.com/news-media/2018/02/23/truex-fails-inspection-3-times-car-chief-suspended/amp/

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch