Then there were four. Following Chase Elliott’s victory at Martinsville, the championship four are set for this weekend’s finale at Phoenix. With a title on the line, let’s jump into this week’s NASCAR DFS preview as we prepare for the Season Finale 500.
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NASCAR DFS Cup Championship Preview | DraftKings + FanDuel
Same Song, New Verse
For the first time since 2001, the finale to the NASCAR season will conclude elsewhere besides Miami-Homestead. In that year, the season ended at New Hampshire — the race that should have taken place the weekend following Sept. 11. However, after that year, every season has ended at Homestead. Now the year concludes at the venue that always preceded Miami — the mile oval in the desert of Arizona.
It should be noted that the past Phoenix races carried their own special weight. In the round of eight, winning at Phoenix locked you into the championship race like Martinsville did last Sunday. However, as many as three drivers could have cemented their path into the championship by the time the green flag waved at Phoenix. This weekend, the script reads the same as it did at Miami: Whoever wins or finishes higher than the other three competitors is crowned champion.
Ever since NASCAR went to the elimination style playoff format, every series champion has won that final race at Miami. In fact, the last time the Cup champion didn’t win the finale was Denny Hamlin in 2013. Back then, NASCAR was still using cumulative playoff points to crown their series winner. so winning the final race wasn’t paramount. But since then it has been, and Series champions have found the easiest way to outpace their competitors is to simply win.
Looking back to March
For NASCAR DFS research purposes, we have to go back to pre-COVID-19 for the FanShield 500. In fact, if you look at the Race Sheets, you’ll notice there are only four races worth of data. If you’re unfamiliar with Phoenix, following the spring-2018 race, Phoenix was completely reworked – including the layout of the track. Thus, while Phoenix is still a one-mile oval like it has been since the late 80s – the fact that the track is essentially a new track has led me to relying on data since that project.
Regardless, our fourth race of the season saw Joey Logano win his second of three races. It took Logano until lap 225 before the #22 finally crested the lead. Logano would lead a total of 60 laps, only the fourth most that Sunday. The top lap leader was polesitter Chase Elliott (92), coincidentally the same driver who will lead our field to green this Sunday. Elliott took advantage of clean air and led the first 60 laps. However, after losing that clean air, Elliott would only lead two more times for 32 more laps with an average running position of seventh.
The second top lap leader that day was Brad Keselowski with 82 laps led. Keselowski was leading late in the race before losing the lead on lap 293 to Logano. Finally, the third-highest lap leader was Kevin Harvick (67), who started second alongside Elliott. Much like Elliott, he benefited from starting position and clean air initially.
Does it Vibe?
We understand who had the best cars that day. Oddly enough, three of the top four lap leaders that day will be competing for the championship Sunday. The question is, though, do these numbers line up with what we’ve previously seen at Phoenix since the reconfiguration of the track?
Over the course of these four races at Phoenix, the pole sitter is indeed leading the most laps on average (82.3). Coincidentally, the pole sitter is also averaging the best finish at 4.3. The starting position averaging the next most laps led is the driver starting fourth (45.5) followed by the driver starting second (44). In fact, if you take the drivers from the first two rows, they’re averaging 209 laps led of the 312 total laps. Furthermore, those same positions are averaging the most fastest laps — they’re collectively grabbing 136 of the 267 fastest laps.
Thus the key to a driver being a valuable NASCAR DFS asset at Phoenix has been track position. Well, lo and behold, those top-four positions will all be held by our championship-contending drivers. Therefore, dissecting the differences between these four drivers is going to come down gauging track history versus how they’ve done in the 750-horsepower package in 2020. That’s a discussion for another article.
What About Keselowski and Logano
The final NASCAR DFS question you may have is if track position is so valuable, what about Logano and Keselowski, who led so many laps from the past race but started in the double digits? That, my friend, can be boiled down to setups. If you crawl through those numbers again, you’ll see it took the No. 2 and No. 22 well into the race before they ascended the lead. Without the benefit of that track position, they had to work their way up front. Eventually they did, and once that happened they were both tough to get around.
In hindsight, it makes sense that the Penske teammates would excel at Phoenix, considering how well they’ve done at shorter, flatter venues in the 750-horsepower package. Keselowski has two wins at similar tracks (New Hampshire, Richmond) and just happens to be bringing that same car from those wins to Phoenix. Logano is the reigning winner at Phoenix and has failed to finish outside of the top five in any of these corollary races.
The starting grid formula removes this possibility from happening, at least for the Penske duo. However, it can’t be ruled out for other drivers who have excelled in this package. This is the big unknown, will we continue to see the championship winner also win the race? Considering the stakes and the seven-year long trend, it feels unlikely that you can’t bet, say, Keselowski to win the race and simultaneously win the championship. However, just know the possibility lies on the table.
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