Race Weekend Central

Predicting the Championship 4 in a Season of Parity

If there was a word to succinctly summarize this NASCAR Cup Series season, I would have to go with parity.

Now you could argue that parity was the raison d’être behind the Next Gen car, but I don’t think the powers that be in Daytona Beach imagined it playing out in quite this way. Four first-time winners in the first 17 races with 12 winners in total and no driver with more than two trips to victory lane certainly has fans guessing who will be this year’s champ.

Normally by this point, the title favorite(s) are obvious. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way in the end — no-one really expected Joey Logano to win it all in the 2018 season — but such are the vagaries of the current playoff format.

So, with that in mind, as we reach the midpoint of the 2022 season here’s my (very early) predicted Championship 4 for Phoenix Raceway this November.

THE OUTSIDER:
At the drop of the green flag at the Daytona 500, if you asked a thousand fans to name the driver with the equal most wins, the most top-fives, the equal most top 10s, the third-best laps led record and the third-best average finish at the midpoint of the season, I can’t imagine any would have plumped for Ross Chastain. But that’s where we are, and the numbers don’t lie. Simply put, Chastain is putting together a very strong case for a sustained run at a maiden title.

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Now the question is how he will react when the pressure ratchets up at the sharp end of the playoffs and the truth is, we just don’t know. The other question is possible retaliation. After a particularly tricky afternoon at Gateway a few weeks back, Chastain was forthright and honest (refreshingly so, I’d add) in his post-race comments: “I owe half of the field an apology. Words aren’t going to fix it, so I’ll have to pay for it on the track. I almost did today and I deserve everything that they do.”

Is this something that comes back to haunt him? Possibly. Either way, Chastain has been one of the true feel-good stories of 2022. It will be fun to watch him run for the title.

THE MAN IN POSSESSION:
After a 10-win season for the ages in 2021, it’s been somewhat “back down to earth” for Kyle Larson in 2022.

His numbers stack up well against the rest of the field with seven top-fives (second most) and nine top-10s, but he only has one victory. At this same stage last season, he had four wins (and three in a row) by comparison. But it was in the playoffs where Larson truly showed his mettle, winning four of the last five races on his way to an inaugural championship.

Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, is currently serving a four-race suspension after an errant wheel issue on a pit stop at Sonoma Raceway, but as the driver himself noted afterwards, it wasn’t a big problem.

“Everything I think ran really smooth,” Larson said. “I am not sure how it went behind the wall with the crew and stuff, but from my seat it seemed like it went pretty smooth. I am sure there will be things we will tweak on and make even smoother, but I was overall pleased for the first time in my Cup career without my primary crew chief.”

Larson might not be showing the same dominance we saw last year but he’s going to be a factor in the playoffs, you can almost guarantee it.

THE FAN FAVORITE:
Chase Elliott picked up his second win of the 2022 season this past weekend in Music City, retaining his lead atop the points standings – a streak that runs all the way back to Atlanta Motor Speedway, the fifth race of the season. Elliott has 11 top 10s (equal most), the best average finish (11.9), the second most laps led (513) bested only by Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron (570 laps) and is quietly putting together a really solid season in his usual unflustered way.

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And after three poor finishes (Kansas Speedway 29th, Charlotte Motor Speedway 33rd, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway 21st) Elliott looks to be back on form with an eighth place at Sonoma Raceway (which could have been a victory) and the Nashville Superspeedway win, heading into a race this weekend at Road America where he won handily last year. Might he be the first three-time winner this year? I’d say there’s a pretty good chance. Elliott, of course, has made the final four in each of the last two seasons. In the pandemic hit season of 2020, he won it all, while last year he could only manage a fourth-place finish, behind teammate and champion Larson and the Joe Gibbs Racing pairing of Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, which is a nice segue to my final choice.

THE TEAM OWNER:
By most statistical measures, outside the two wins, Hamlin has had a poor season.

At the time of writing, he is mired in 20th place in the overall standings and his average finish of 20.2 is his lowest number by a considerable margin since 2013 when he missed four races due to an injury. Last season, by comparison, he completed an incredible 9,196 of 9,200 total laps and had 19 top-fives’s, 25 top 10’s and an average finish of 8.4 (all career highs). This season has essentially been the polar opposite.

And yet, he still has two wins and could have won several other races as well. Hamlin has made the Championship 4 in each of the last three seasons but hasn’t really been a threat in the final race on any of those occasions as he chases that elusive championship to put a bow on his Hall of Fame career. Could this be the season that he finally gets it done? In this season of parity, why the heck not?

Let me know your thoughts on who makes the Championship 4 in the comments below.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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johndawgchapman

At this point in the season, or any point, for that matter, predicting the final 4 is difficult. And predicting the winner, is a matter of crystal ball gazing.
The current format isn’t designed to deliver the most deserving champion. It’s for delivering suspense.

Last year was the year of Larson. He made the final 4 by absolutely dominating the regular season, & the playoffs.

But he won the championship, only because his pit crew came through for him in spades. W/O that miracle stop, he would probably finish 3rd or 4th.

And Truex would have been hoisting the big trophy.

As for retaliation against Chastain in the playoffs, if it happened, & I was in Chastain’s position. I’d make my mission to make sure that when Hamlin finally hangs it up, he’d do so W/O a championship. Although he probably wouldn’t have to do much to make that happen. That seems to take care of itself.

Bill B

Well said. Especially that last paragraph.

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