Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Before the final four drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series race for the final time, here’s everything you need to know about how we got here and what to expect.
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has come down to this — one more race, with four drivers battling it out for the championship. The situation heading into this final race is simple: Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano will enter, and whoever finishes highest out of those four will be awarded the 2022 championship.
NASCAR has used this kind of winner-takes-all system since 2014, with Kevin Harvick taking the title that year.
This has been one of the weirdest NASCAR seasons I can remember, and I’ve been watching the sport since 2001. The governing body adopted a new “generation” of car this season, which has really flattened the field. The best cars are still the best, but more cars have been competitive on a week-to-week basis.
The NASCAR 16-car playoff system is essentially a “win and you’re in” thing, with the remaining playoff spots given to the highest-ranking drivers without a win. Usually, that means a driver can finish in the top 10 in points after the regular season and make it into the postseason even if they didn’t win. This year, the new car equalized things, with drivers as high in points as fourth place (Martin Truex Jr.) missing the playoffs because drivers who were out of the top 16 in points like Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe win races.
So, we already had a weird playoff field, with two top 16 drivers (Truex and Erik Jones) missing. Then, the first round of the playoffs featured every race won by a non-playoff driver. In fact, only Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Christopher Bell won playoff races while they were still playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick and Kyle Larson won during this stretch, but both were already eliminated.
And then came Sunday. Martinsville was the last chance for drivers to earn their way into the finale, and we saw a lot of things go down late in the race.
It all started with a late caution. Chase Briscoe, who was in a must-win situation, stayed out while most of the field pitted, as did his teammate Cole Custer, creating a little bit of a buffer between Briscoe and the stronger cars. It was lap 471 when Briscoe assumed the lead, and lap 477 when the race went green again. Briscoe got away good and looked like he was about to shock the world and win in what would essentially be like a walk-off home run.
But Christopher Bell, who was in the exact same scenario as Briscoe and had to win this race to advance, had fresh tires, and on lap 496 Bell was able to get past Briscoe. Briscoe eventually faded to ninth, missing the Championship 4, while Bell took the win, cementing his spot at Phoenix. It was the second time in these playoffs that Bell came into the last race of a playoff round needing to win to advance, and it’s the second time he ended up winning and advancing.
That wasn’t all, though. With Bell winning his way in, only one of Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain was going to be able to make it. Hamlin had the advantage when the white flag flew, but Chastain did one of the wildest things that’s ever happened in a NASCAR race:
Going into the final corner and needing to gain two—I think—spots to advance, Chastain threw caution to the wind and just pressed his foot down. Instead of braking in the corner like every other car, Chastain smacked into the wall, using that momentum to pass the cars he needed to pass. His lap was two seconds faster than the leader and actually set a Cup Series track record.
It was a controversial move, but it locked Chastain into the Championship 4.
Let’s take a quick dive into who these four title contenders are.
Bell has been extremely clutch in these playoffs, winning twice in races where if he hadn’t won, he would have been eliminated.
That clutchness is a new development for Bell. Currently in his third Cup Series season, Bell had just one victory in his career before this season, but he’s now won three times in 2022. Bell took a little bit to adjust to the Cup Series, but he’s one of the best pure racers in the world — you can see it by looking at how well he does any time he steps into a different kind of race car, like how he’s the three-time winner of the Chili Bowl, one of the most prestigious sprint car races in America.
The other three drivers are all driving for traditional NASCAR powerhouses, and all three of them have only driven for powerhouses. Bell and Elliott are on the teams they joined Cup with, while Logano started with Joe Gibbs Racing and is now at Penske. But Chastain had a much different road to Cup success.
Chastain’s first Cup Series race came in 2017 when he ran for Premium Motorsports. He essentially ran two full seasons with the team in 2018 and 2019, but we didn’t really get to see much of Chastain those years because of how bad that team was. He eventually was able to have some success in Xfinity, wining a race in 2018 for Chip Ganassi Racing, which he drove a partial schedule for. In 2020, he got his best break, joining Kaulig Racing in Xfinity. He parlayed a seventh-place finish in the points into a full-time Cup role with Chip Ganassi last year and then moved to Trackhouse when they bought CGR’s NASCAR program.
This year, Chastain has two wins, his only two victories in the Cup Series. The last champion to win his first Cup Series race the same year that he won the championship was Bill Rexford in 1950, so that’s definitely something that’s working against Chastain. There’s also the chance that a driver like Denny Hamlin could decide to seek some pay back.
Elliott should probably be considered the favorite coming into this weekend, considering he was the 2020 Cup Series champion and that he’s driving for a Hendrick Motorsports team that also won the title last year. Elliott was also the regular season champion this year.
So far this year, Elliott has five wins, and he had perhaps the most impressive run of the season during the summer, finishing first or second in five consecutive races. But the playoffs haven’t seen Elliott look quite as dominant, with just one top-10 over the last four races.
Logano is the “veteran” of the title race, in the sense that he’s the only driver left in the championship battle to not be in his 20s still. Like Elliott, Logano is a former Cup Series champion, winning the title in 2018. He’s also a two-time winner at Phoenix — Elliott is the only other remaining driver with a win here.
And if we’re looking for one of these playoff drivers to use their Phoenix skills to win this, Logano is the driver to watch. He’s finished 11th or better here in seven consecutive races, leading 60 or more laps in four of those.
What good is a preview without a prediction as well?
It’s going to be a tight battle, but I’m picking Joey Logano to win his second NASCAR Cup Series championship. Elliott’s been a little off lately, Chastain is trying to do something that hasn’t been done since the second season that the Cup Series existed, and Bell’s been really clutch, but it’s hard to imagine him winning three of these must-wins during the playoffs.
That leaves Logano. Two Phoenix wins. Two top 10s in the Round of 8, including a win at Vegas. And in the March race here, Logano had the second-best finish of the remaining drivers, behind Chastain, who finished second.
Looking at the betting market, Elliott is the early favorite at +200 on DraftKings Sportsbook, while the other three drivers are all at +300. That means there’s not really much of a value pick here — you aren’t going to get Chastain at significantly longer odds than the others to get an edge or anything. But I’ll definitely throw something down on Logano.