NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Finale at Phoenix

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix on Sunday (Nov. 7) to clinch his first career NASCAR Cup Series title. Championship 4 contenders Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott finished second, third and fifth, respectively, while Ryan Blaney finished fourth.

How did it happen?

Larson led the first lap after earning the pole before Elliott quickly got around him on the second lap. He stayed out front for another five laps until the first caution of the day. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace squeezed three-wide entering turn 3, and Wallace got the worst of it.

Larson pitted under yellow while everyone else stayed out, forcing him to restart 34th. Just three laps after the restart, Stenhouse and LaJoie wrecked again, except with Stenhouse on the outside this time.

There were mixed strategies on this caution, with Blaney staying out to gain the lead for the lap 21 restart. Elliott worked his way through traffic up to Larson for second, but both were overtaken by Harvick while they all pursued Blaney.

Truex, displaying great long-run speed, worked through everyone and got the lead at lap 50. He cruised to the stage one win, while Elliott (third), Hamlin (fourth) and Larson (fifth) were close behind.

Elliott grabbed the lead on pit road, then he paced the field for 40 laps to begin stage two. Truex, once again, came on strong at the end of the run and took the lead at lap 120. Just a few laps later, Quin Houff cut a tire and wrecked out in StarCom Racing’s final Cup start with a charter.

See also
Quin Houff Crashes Out in StarCom’s Final NASCAR Race

Once again, the No. 9 crew gave Elliott the lead off pit road. The next run lasted just five laps before Stenhouse finally crashed out for good. After that, it was a 10-lap run of Elliott leading before Chase Briscoe crashed out with a tire problem and some inadvertent help from Kyle Busch.

Larson won the race off pit road that time, and he held on to win the second stage over Elliott, Hamlin and Truex.

Larson led through the next restart with 115 to go, as he and Elliott pulled away from the field. Elliott ran with Larson for nearly 40 laps before finally passing him with 76 to go. Hamlin and Truex narrowed the gap as the run ran long, but Truex opted to pit first under green with 65 to go. Truex caught a massive break when Anthony Alfredo crashed while he was on pit road, drawing a caution.

The incident gave Truex the lead as the other leaders had to pit under caution. On the restart with 58 to go, Truex and Hamlin got the edge over the Hendrick Motorsports duo. They started to pull away, especially as the run extended.

With 30 to go, David Starr lost a brake rotor and a debris caution was thrown. That set up the most important pit stops of the season, and Larson’s crew delivered. They gave him the lead over Hamlin, Truex with Elliott trailing in fourth.

The final restart with 24 to go was intense. Truex got to Larson’s left rear quarterpanel, still unable to complete the pass. Larson stretched it out and led by around one second throughout most of the run. Truex inched closer as the laps wound down, but it was too little, too late.

Larson secured the 0.398-second victory over Truex to earn the championship. It was his 10th win of the season, 16th of his career and first at Phoenix.

Who stood out?

Larson put an exclamation point on the most dominant season in recent NASCAR history. From the very beginning of the year, it was clear Larson and Hendrick Motorsports were a match made in heaven. He won in just his fourth HMS start, then won nine more times throughout the year — plus the All-Star Race. Let’s run through some of the numbers.

  • 10 wins, 20 top fives, 26 top 10s, 2,581 laps led

Each of those led the series by a country mile; for example, Larson led 1,079 laps more than the next-closest driver. His 10 wins were the most in a season since Jimmie Johnson in 2007. His 2,581 laps led were the most in a season since Jeff Gordon in 1995.

Simply put, there was no way to deny Larson this year. He is the most fitting champion and would’ve won it in any previous points format. Winning four of the final five races and five of the final 10 only cemented Larson as the best all-around driver this season. Oh, and here’s one more for the road: Larson tied Tony Stewart’s 2011 record by winning five playoff races in a single year.

Who fell flat?

We’ll use this category to discuss the three other championship finalists.

Truex caught some lucky breaks and it still wasn’t enough to top Larson. The caution while he was on pit road seemed like a sign. Truex didn’t have the short-run car to compete with Larson or Elliott. But by starting with clean air, he was able to hold them off until his car warmed up. Had the race stayed green, he likely would’ve been celebrating his second championship. Instead, it’s his third runner-up finish (2018, 2019, 2021) in the last four years.

Truex alluded to it in his post-race interview, but you have to wonder how many chances he has left. There were retirement rumors last offseason and the 41-year-old doesn’t seem like he’ll drive into his late 40s, like Mark Martin or Kevin Harvick. So it’s time to appreciate MTJ while he’s still here, especially after another outstanding four-win season. He’s been one of the sport’s best drivers in recent years after a career resurgence with Furniture Row Racing.

Hamlin was the furthest off among the title contenders, and his search for a first championship will continue. All week, Hamlin went on and on about how he thrives under pressure. How he actually gets better when things get tough. I’m here to challenge that claim. My biggest Hamlin memories are actually of him coming up short, and this race was no different. He wasn’t great on the short runs, and his long-run speed was equal or slightly worse than Truex’s. Hamlin will enter his age-41 season without a championship as he gets closer and closer to potentially going his entire career without a title.

This race was emblematic of Hamlin’s entire season. He was remarkably consistent from the Daytona 500 through Phoenix, completing 9,196 of 9,200 laps. That’s right; all but four laps throughout the year’s 36 races. Hamlin added two playoff wins and a series-best 8.4 average finish. The biggest issue for the No. 11 this season was its inability to win races, and that’s ultimately what they would’ve needed at Phoenix to take the championship.

See also
Denny Hamlin Falls Short of Elusive Title In 3rd Straight Championship 4

Elliott flashed race-winning speed at times before fading in the end — which was fitting for the way his season went. Similar to Hamlin, Elliott just couldn’t close the deal this year. He was often outrun by his teammate, which isn’t so bad when your teammate is outrunning everyone in the field. Elliott’s only victories this season were at road courses, and 2021 marked his fewest wins in a season since 2017. He set a career-best 11.4 average finish and tied a career high with 15 top-five finishes, but it wasn’t enough.

Moving forward, Elliott is going to have to figure out how to beat his teammate. Over the past few years, HMS teammates were never a threat to his success. Now, he has a fellow champion and two other contenders in his shop. The No. 9 made a lot of simple errors that cost them points this season, and that’s sometimes the difference in winning a championship.

What did this race prove?

Hendrick Motorsports is the team of the present and the future. For the last several years, HMS was always a tick behind Gibbs, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. Elliott contended and ultimately won the 2020 championship, but the organization as a whole was never as good from top to bottom. This year, HMS emerged as the sport’s best team. They won 17 races, led 4,119 laps, plus collected 55 top fives and 83 top 10s among its four drivers.

Even with this incredible season, a case can be made that HMS could be even better in the coming years. Larson is unlikely to rattle off 10 wins every year, but it’s not far-fetched to expect more wins from Elliott (two) and Byron (one). The Next Gen car is expected to give smaller teams a chance. I’m still going to bet on the organization with the most employees and minds in the shop, innovating to gain any advantage they can. With Jeff Gordon officially shifting into the No. 2 leadership position behind Rick Hendrick, this team is likely to rule the Next Gen era, too.

Sometimes, a team is so dominant that it is able to break the format. The talk entering the title race every year is the same: is the championship legit if the best driver from this season doesn’t win it? Last year, we saw it when Harvick didn’t even make the final four. Larson left no doubt in 2021, though. The format was invented to create chaos, but in the end, we got the same ending that this season deserved. The top seed winning won’t happen every year, but it is good to see a team with such a great season get rewarded with a rightful championship.

This was the final race with five lug-nut pit stops, and boy did Larson’s crew give these tires a proper goodbye. On the final stop of the race, the No. 5 crew delivered their second fastest stop of the season to catapult Larson from fourth to first.

Yung Money got the money stop at the perfect time, which only emphasized how much of a team sport NASCAR is. Larson doesn’t win the title without his pit crew, and the pit crew doesn’t deliver unless Larson gives them that No. 1 pit stall in qualifying. Just perfect execution all weekend, and all season, from crew chief Cliff Daniels and the No. 5 team.

The Gen-6 era was capped off with a battle between its two best teams. Hendrick and Gibbs defined the Gen-6 era, winning six of the nine championships since the car debuted in 2013. And that doesn’t include Furniture Row Racing’s title, which came in JGR equipment. It was fitting that these two teams got to decide the final champion of the era. NextGen brings a lot of unknowns, but it’s fair to handicap these two groups as the favorites entering the next generation of the sport.

Paint scheme of the race

Stenhouse wrapped up his 2021 season in style, even if he had a few rough moments in the race. Gone were the usual blue and white Kroger colors, and in were the brown, orange and yellow Honey Nut Cheerios colors. Credit to JTG Daugherty Racing for killing it with different paint schemes all year long.

Better than last time?

Last year was Phoenix’s first as the title race. It was largely uneventful in terms of cautions, with just the two stage breaks, a competition yellow and one single-car incident. Elliott dominated after starting in the rear, leading the final 43 laps under green to win his first championship. There were moments of fun battles between Elliott, Logano and Keselowski, though it did get strung out in the caution-free final stage as Elliott won by 2.740 seconds.

This year, the four title contenders again paced the field for most of the race. There were way more cautions, plenty more restarts and much more unknown in the final stage. The dynamic between Hendrick’s short-run speed and Gibbs’ long-run speed made every run different. I’ll take the 2021 race over 2020.

Playoff picture

The season is complete, with Larson winning the title. Truex, Hamlin and Elliott followed him across the finish line. As far as the other 12 drivers, Harvick ended up winning the battle for fifth. Here’s how the entire points standings shook out:

Even though Keselowski was edged for fifth place, he found a way to celebrate with his iconic beer glass after one final race for Team Penske.

See also
One For the Road With Brad Keselowski

What’s next?

The offseason!

Testing for the Next Gen cars will happen in the next few weeks, and then again in the new year. Cars will be on track for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, Feb. 6. Stick with Frontstretch over the next few months for the latest news and analysis on both the 2021 and upcoming 2022 season.

Thanks for reading all year long, and enjoy the holidays!

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: PHOENIX

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19 Comments
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Rg72

The concept of a driver having already clinched the championship before the last race seems more and more attractive each year we see this 4 car parade.

Joe D.

I almost want to say “Let’s go Kenseth” for bringing us the playoff system with his one win championship season in 2003, but as a good person he doesn’t deserve that treatment.

Bill B

I agree 100%. I too hate the fact that every year the 4 contenders run 1-2-3-4 at race end. With 39 cars on the track and assuming they are all trying to win, this should be a statistical anomaly, BUT IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR. The only conclusion that one can make is that the other 35 cars aren’t trying to win which makes the championship race a farce of a race.

As a second point, given that the car in clean air seems to have a major advantage, it seem arbitrary that whoever has the best pit stop when they pit for the last time will win the race and championship. Should 1 pit stop among the hundreds of pit stops, all the laps of racing, and all the race finishes during the year, have that much bearing on who wins the championship? As I said, the word “arbitrary” seems to fit the current championship format.

At least this year the most deserving driver (based on the entire season’s statistics) won.

Last edited 25 days ago by Bill B
JD in NC

It is very much a statistical anomaly. So either nascar tells everyone else to lay back, or perhaps there are special “championship 4” tapered spacers. An extra few HP could go a long ways.

Iceman202290

I’ve been convinced that the top 4 have a little extra HP as well for a few years now.

What a burnout by Kyle Larson tho. On to the next gen car where I hope clean air and side force dont lead the headlines in 2022!

I am hoping so hard that this next gen car allows for some good racing. I just am so tired of the clean air show and air game racing that we had with the gen 6. But I dunno if my fandom can make it through if the next gen car performance results are similar to the NASCAR Ignition game.

See everyone in 2022, enjoy the offseason and next gen news.

Dan

I didn’t watch the race but did see the results. Blaney was listed as a 4th place finish so that would seem to say that someone other than the fab 4 was trying to win the race while staying out of the way.

DoninAjax

If a MLB team wins its division by 15 or 20 games MLB doesn’t change the system.

If the team that wins the most games during the season doesn’t win the World Series MLB doesn’t change the system. Just look at this past season. And teams are eliminated for real playoffs.

Kevin in SoCal

The MLB has changed the system several times in the last couple decades. Most recently was the additional game to determine the wild card team.

DoninAjax

They don’t try to get the team with the most wins as World Series Champions.

Kevin in SoCal

The most wins during the regular season has no bearing on how you do during the playoffs.
I’m not sure what you meant, sorry.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR has been trying to insure that the driver with the most wins gets the title.How many new formulas have they tried? It can’t be done unless they luck into it like this year.

Kevin in SoCal

No way, with this system there’s a reason to watch every race. Wins count for more, like the fans wanted.
I thought it stunk just going thru the motions for the last couple races because the champ only had to cruise to win the title.

Sally Baker

Were there more than 8 cars on the track? Hard to tell from the “coverage”.

Bill B

Well they did cover the other cars when they wrecked… LOL.

DoninAjax

There were 4 Hendrick cars and 5 Gibbs cars. Gibbs lost one which cut the total to 8. But only the 5, 9, 11 and 19 really mattered to the televising crew.

Carl D.

If you discount the suspicious anomaly of all the top four running 1-4, the race was pretty good. There were at least a half dozen cars that were strong enough to win, including Harvick and Blaney, and no one ran away with this one. I give it an ice cold six-pack of Warsteiner Oktoberfest Lager.

Nice job handling this column, Logan. I always look forward to your take on the race every week. Now take yourself a well-earned break.

DoninAjax

Starting in 2017, Ryan Blaney has finished 9th, 10th, 7th, 9th, and 7th in points.

Bubba finished 21st in points, while his teammates finished 2nd, 3rd, 9th and 12th. His last event provided a fitting end to his season.

John Dawg Chapman

I really think the time is past, when drivers hung on into their late 40s or even 50s. All you have to do is reflect on Petty’s final seasons to see why this isn’t a good idea. And even with today’s salaries not where they were a few years ago. Money still shouldn’t be the deciding factor about when to step away. I still think Truex has some good years in him if he chooses to pursue them.
Same for Hamlin, but I expect he’ll decide soon that his time is better spent guiding 2311, than driving. As bad as he wants a Championship on his resume, the chances diminish every year, & he knows that.

DoninAjax

Back in the day drivers didn’t start in Cup until their early 30s or later. They had to pay their dues. Now they’re groomed in their teens and suffer through their first few seasons in Cup. Harry Gant didn’t get a decent ride until his mid 40s.

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