After nine months, 35 point-paying races, two exhibition events, 19 different race winners, paddock parity like we’ve never seen before, and almost as much controversy as there are exciting moments, NASCAR’s 16 playoff contenders have spent their fall being carved down to a dozen, eight and now finally the coveted championship 4.
This quartet will fight Mano a mano and machine to machine for at least 312 laps of the oddly shaped speedway that thinks it’s a short distance, the 1 mile Phoenix Raceway. The format is simple. The highest-place finisher of those four will be crowned the 74th Season Champion of NASCAR’s Premier Series.
So who are these four? How did you come here? How are they doing at Phoenix? And how do you deal with the pressure to win a title? Read on as we give you the stats, path and also a quick Q&A with each one.
2022: 3 wins, 4 poles, 12 top 5s, 19 top 10s, 6 DNFs
Playoffs 2022: 2 wins, 1 pole, 5 top 5/top 10, 2 DNFs
Playoff History: 2nd appearance, 2 wins, both this year
Best championship result: 12th, 2021
Phoenix Career Stats: 5 starts, 0 wins, 0 top 5, 2 top 10 (both 9th place), 0 DNFs, 17.0 average finish
ESPN: On Sunday, you won your way into that Championship 4 after destroying that playoff round in the mayhem of Bubba Wallace/Kyle Larson in Las Vegas and finishing 34th. And to get into that round you had to win at the Charlotte Roval because you started that round in 34th place too. Dude, that’s a tough road to make a living.
Bell jar: It is. And that’s why I was more emotional than ever behind the wheel of a race car, right after the win in Martinsville last weekend. My first thoughts were of my mom and dad because when I left Vegas I was just devastated. Mom and Dad kept saying, “You can still do it, you can still do it.” I didn’t really believe them, especially when I went to Martinsville, where I didn’t have any success, and then there we were, at Victory Lane.
ESPN: You have to have these anchors in life.
Bell jar: As [crew chief] Adam Stevens. He has seen everything. As everyone knows, he has won a couple of cup titles with Kyle Busch. He never changes. If we win or lose or crash or if I fold 18 times, he’s the same every week. His routine is the same. He just stays very, very calm, cool, collected and attacks every race like that, whether it’s in April or this weekend for a championship. That carries over to my mechanics, road mechanics, shop mechanics, the pit crew, everyone involved. That’s how you drive 35 points under the cut line on a track to Martinsville that I really haven’t come close to winning at in the past and do what we did.
ESPN: I know the sample size isn’t great, but you didn’t exactly set fire to Phoenix Raceway either.
Bell jar: But I love phoenix. It was one of my favorite circuits during my Xfinity days [three top fives and a win in five starts]. But on the cup side you can’t measure a man’s stats when it comes to the last four championship races like Phoenix. Unless you belong to this group, your only goal is not to bother these guys. So not in the championship, I was really just trying to get out of the way.
ESPN: And now you’re in the championship, so…
Bell jar: Yes, let’s hope they remember and avoid me this time [laughs]!
2022: 2 wins, 0 poles, 14 top 5, 20 top 10, 5 DNFs
Playoffs 2022: 0 wins, 0 poles, 4 top 5s, 6 top 10s, 0 DNFs
Playoff History: 1st appearance, no wins
Best championship result: 20th, 2021
Phoenix Career Stats: 8 starts, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 1 top 10 (2nd place, March 2022), 0 DNFs, 20.5 average placing
ESPN: Ok, first things first. That move on the last lap at Martinsville where you went from 10th to 5th when you rode the wall like Tony Hawk and I think you were doing 300mph. How has this week been now that you are the greatest racer who ever lived?
Ross Chastain completes a major comeback by making an unlikely move to secure a spot in the NASCAR Cup Championship.
Chastain: [Laughs] I still can’t believe it worked. Yes, with the reach of people all over the world, it’s insane. That’s the great thing about racing, we have the potential to see something like that every now and then. And every once in a while, something wild will happen that defies physics.
ESPN: How did it feel?
Chastain: It felt so fast. When they said how many seats I needed there was no choice. It would happen. And when I put fifth gear in, I wasn’t planning on doing that, but I’d run out of gear or I’d hit the chip. So I put fifth gear in, just like I did, I passed my break point where I should have slowed down. That stuff just accelerated like very fast. The wild part is that it just didn’t slow down as I went around the wall. It hasn’t lost speed. I started to let go of the steering wheel because I was really doing nothing and I thought about the pit gate [the section of the front stretch wall that opens as a gate]. I didn’t want to break my hands.
ESPN: That moment encapsulates for me the experience of Ross Chastain in 2022. You drive for a supposedly second rate team in Trackhouse Racing. You won on a street circuit and in Talladega in the same car. You had this weird off-road experience on the Indianapolis street circuit. But here you are.
Chastain: If I wasn’t driving that car I’d be farming and you know what, I’d be watching those races this weekend. I’d be a fan. I’m a fan. And this team, it’s a team that’s easy to cheer for as a fan. We’re in the same building as Ganassi Racing when I entered to drive an Xfinity car in 2018, but since then, what a roller coaster ride. We’re going to be driving full-time and then we’re going to shut down and then I get in the cup car and now the team is sold and there’s a next-gen car. I was in the store this morning before leaving for Phoenix and I’ve been thinking about all of this. Many of us are still together. Again, that’s an easy bunch if you’re a NASCAR fan.
2022: 5 wins, 4 poles, 12 top 5s, 20 top 10s, 4 DNFs
Playoffs 2022: 1 win (Talladega), 3 top 10s, 2 DNFs
Playoff History: 7th appearance, 7 wins
Best championship result: 2020 Cup Series Champions
Phoenix Career Stats: 13 starts, 1 win (2020 title winner), 5 top 5, 8 top 10, 1 DNF, 10.7 average finish
ESPN: Chase Eliot. I literally remember the day you were born and now here you are, the demure, seasoned 26-year veteran…
Eliot: Yes [laughs], I don’t necessarily feel like a veteran. If you step back and look at it, this will be the end of my seventh year in the cup, which is crazy for both of you and me. I think about it and it’s like, damn, I’ve been doing this longer than any other form of racing in my career. I think for everyone, whether you’re a racer or not, your mid-twenties are important years just in your life in general. You navigate through different things. They’re trying to understand where things are going and what the race side of things is. But to have the opportunity to compete for a championship in the last three years has been a great honor.
ESPN: But when a team and a driver make it to the last race three times in a row, does it feel like everything is the same as always?
Eliot: No way. Making Championship 4 is a very difficult thing. Something I certainly don’t take for granted. Our path to this race was very different in these three years. In 2020 we had to win Martinsville just to finish in the last four and win the championship and that was the craziest seven days of my life. Last year we made it with Konstanz. We’ve been everywhere this year, but those wins gave us enough bonus points to keep going. As long as your best weekend is your last, that’s the only goal now.
ESPN: I won’t be in Phoenix. I will be in Athens Georgia to see your beloved Dawgs host Tennessee. I’m sorry for that.
Eliot: Do not be. You are certainly not alone in this. I wish I could be in both places at the same time, but if that makes you feel better, I have many friends who have already informed me that they will be watching the race on TV this Sunday because they have chosen to stay at home in stay Georgia for the game. I don’t blame it. It’s a big game. I mean no bigger than mine, but that’s cool [laughs]. See you next month at the SEC Championship.
2022: 3 wins, 3 poles, 10 top 5s, 16 top 10s, 4 DNFs
Playoffs 2022: 1 win (Las Vegas), 2 poles, 4 top 10s, 1 DNF
Playoff History: 9th appearance, 11 wins
Best championship result: Cup Series Champion 2018
Phoenix Career Stats: 27 starts, 2 wins (last March 2020), 7 top 5s, 15 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 13.1 average placing
ESPN: There are really two couples in this foursome. The two veterans and the two younger, relative newbies. You’re the oldest of the group and you were one of the original guys in the NASCAR youth movement. How different is it for you now?
Logano: The comforting feeling of having been to Championship 4 five times now, you kind of know what’s coming around the corner. How is this week. How to prepare for the race itself. It’s definitely a lot more comfortable [laughs].
ESPN: So, do you subscribe to the notion I keep hearing from football coaches that this is just another game, just another race being approached this way?
Logano: I don’t agree at all. It’s the championship race. It’s all. If you do, just try to minimize the running so you’re more comfortable. I don’t want to be comfortable. The extra pressure and intensity, you find yourself on another level. Winning championships is why I do it. That’s why I’ve always done it. So none of this should feel normal because you are living this dream.
ESPN: When does it feel normal, if ever?
Logano: When the window net opens. when you put your helmet on. It’s like, alright, everyone’s gone. The noise is gone. I can just do my job and do what I’m willing to do and do it. This piece of it. And I think the whole team thinks the same, right? But once the big crew is ready, they are armed. It’s only her right when [crew chief] Paul [Wolfe] climbs onto the box. It all depends on its engineers. That’s one of those moments where it’s like, ‘OK, all the junk is gone. At this point, it’s all about winning.”
ESPN: In other words, when people like me can’t get to you and get in your way…
Logano: I called it trash didn’t I? That came out kind of wrong. We’re sorry. But yeah, now get out of my way McGee so I can compete for this championship [laughs]!
https://www.espn.com/racing/story/_/id/34941329/which-nascar-championship-4-win-2022-title Which of NASCAR’s Championship 4 will win the 2022 title?