Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Phoenix: Can We Please Change the NASCAR Championship Venue Already?

What happened?

Joey Logano won his second career NASCAR Cup Series Championship with a win in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway Sunday (Nov. 6). Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney finished second, followed by championship rival Ross Chastain in third. Chase Briscoe and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

The victory marks Logano’s third career victory at the Arizona circuit and Roger Penske’s third Cup Series title as a team owner.

Fellow Championship 4 drivers Christopher Bell and Chase Elliott finished 10th and 28th, respectively.

How did it happen?

There was very little doubt.

From the green flag, Logano seemed to be the fastest car on the one-mile circuit. Heck, from the end of qualifying, the Connecticut native seemed to be the favorite. He started on the pole, won stage one and finished second in stage two.

Even for most of the final stage, however, Logano and his teammate Blaney dominated. The duo swapped the lead and led a combined 296 out of 312 laps of the event. For you non-mathematicians out there, that’s nearly 95% of the race the Penske cars dominated the event.

However, Briscoe inherited the lead under caution on lap 272 and led for a few laps after the green flag waved. Alas, the facade was broken after Logano sped by the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to take back the lead in the final 30 laps.

From then on, Blaney and points rival Chastain attempted to put up a fight but were unable to get around the No. 22 for the lead. Logano continued on to earn his second career championship nearly unopposed.

Who stood out?

After Zane Smith and Ty Gibbs won their respective championships from the pole position, it was a good guess as to why Logano would be the favorite to take the title when he won the pole.

However, one would expect at least a little competition, but that simply didn’t come to be. While he didn’t lead every lap, the No. 22 Penske Ford went on to lead a race-high 187 out of 312 laps, which is nearly 60% of the season finale.

That made Logano public enemy No. 1 among the remaining playoff drivers. Alas, none of them were able to show enough speed to get around the Shell/Pennzoil Ford. Logano demonstrated the same amount of domination his championship-winning cohorts had displayed for the rest of the weekend in leading for most of the finale race.

To make matters worse for Penske’s rivals, Blaney joined the dominating fray as well in his mission to finally earn at least one victory before the end of the year for the No. 12 crew. Instead, he fell short behind the No. 22 in second, playing rear-gunner for the organization.

While Blaney managed to stay within arm’s reach of his teammate, Logano simply had the speed to outrun everyone who dared challenge him. There was no doubt that after Logano’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Penske crew used their two weeks of freedom to assess their short track package in preparation for Phoenix.

Who fell flat?

The same cannot be said for everyone else.

We’ll start with Elliott, who appeared to be the only driver for most of the race that could possibly challenge the No. 22 for the championship lead.

It wasn’t too surprising, as both drivers have been Cup champions before. However, after earning five wins in 2022, Elliott appeared to be the favorite for the title. After all, the Georgian had won his only Cup title at the track in 2020, so he knew how to perform at the mile-long circuit if he needed to.

That didn’t happen, and, well, maybe it wasn’t his fault.

The thing about racing for a championship is that you know your rivals are going to do whatever it takes, and if one of them is that crazy watermelon farmer Chastain, your chances of playoff shenanigans are going to be multiplied.

In this case, it came to a head on lap 269, right after one of the event’s final restarts.

Was it Chastain? Was it Elliott? Or was it simply one of those racing deals?

No matter how you look at it, both drivers had chances to dethrone Logano, with Elliott even pulling ahead of the No. 22 at one point during the 312-lap event. Had it not been for this one incident during the final stage, one wonders what could’ve been for the two drivers.

But maybe it means something more as well. Maybe something seen in the background when it comes to team preparation.

It was obvious Penske prepared for the finale more than Hendrick Motorsports or Trackhouse Racing Team had, so perhaps too much focus was put on those final two races in the Round of 8 in the playoffs.

Or maybe they had some help.

No matter how you see it, Logano was ready for Phoenix whereas the other three Championship 4 drivers were not. It’s a pattern we saw for the other two series’ finales.

What did this race prove?

With all of that said, perhaps it’s time to say Phoenix has done its time as the series finale. Let’s move on.

No, really. Please move on.

Why are we still using Phoenix as the venue for the title finale? Sure, it is an interesting oblong circuit with some fascinating fan amenities, but is it really a venue that screams season finale?

Let’s remember the fact that this race was dominated by both Blaney and Logano, with Logano being the leader of the Championship 4 drivers for an overwhelming majority of the event. Sure, maybe it’s because of Logano’s preparation or Chastain, Elliott or Bell’s lack thereof, but there is one massive fact that stands above everything else.

This race was anticlimactic.

Isn’t the Championship 4 race supposed to be a thrilling battle between the best of NASCAR for that respective year? Aren’t we supposed to be seeing a thrilling battle between the sport’s best right down to the very end of each race at this venue?

But that’s not what we got. In fact, we haven’t gotten that since we began racing at Phoenix for the finale race in 2020.

Every championship winner since 2019 has been the result of a dominating driver in the final race. All three winners at the fall race at Phoenix have been the race-high lap leader for the championship. In honesty, we really could be making a case for the idea that maybe the season’s championship shouldn’t be decided by a single race. Maybe it should be decided by two or three races. You know, kind of like the other rounds in the playoffs?

But let’s forget that and try to find a more appropriate venue for the championship. What’s the first track that comes to mind when you try to think of a fair and balanced track to sort out the Cup title?

It wasn’t Phoenix, was it?

Probably not.

Better than last time?

In championship fashion, one driver appeared to reign supreme over the other playoff drivers, and as such, competition dwindled.

There were six leaders in 15 lead changes in March, and similarly, there were six different leaders on Sunday. However, they only exchanged the top spot 11 times in the 312-lap event.

It’s no secret the Next Gen car has fallen flat when it comes to the short track packages. So, when everyone knew the final race would take place at a flat short-like track, it wasn’t expected to be a barnburner.

But with all of the hype surrounding it, one would at least hope.

Like at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, passing seemed to be a difficult process for many. At some points, that actually seemed to be somewhat interesting as drivers were forced to alter their driving lines.

At other points, it was frustrating, especially if there is a championship on the line.

Paint scheme of the race

It’s a proper sendoff for sure, but it’s still tragic that it had to happen in the first place.

There’s no other brand in the sport of NASCAR that has arguably put out a better collage of livery designs than that of M&M’s, and now it’s over. For now, at least.

It’s always sad to see such a beloved brand leave the sport after being involved for so long, but at least the candy brand had one more special design for the Candyman. Even better, it’s one that pays homage to those fans that have supported him all this time.

The No. 18 Toyota driven by Kyle Busch may have looked similar to its normal yellow scheme, but closer inspection reveals a mosaic of photos submitted by fans in a campaign run by Mars to pay one last token of respect and gratitude for a sport and its fanbase. It’s a similar-looking livery to the one run by Logano when Team Penske celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.

Alas, it’s a scheme that brings out bittersweet emotions. It marks the end of an era not only for the No. 18’s sponsor but for its driver as well.

That’s also not including the terrible tragedy for the Gibbs family that occurred before Sunday’s race in the form of the death of Coy Gibbs, which made the final race for Busch’s No. 18 all the more somber in tone.

What’s next?

A well-deserved break.

It’s been one heck of a year for the sport. The 2022 season will be looked back upon with, hopefully, a majority amount of fondness mixed in with some controversy.

But hey, what NASCAR season hasn’t seen its fair number of mixed feelings?

Regardless, it’s time to take that yearly hibernation until February, when the 2023 season begins with the new (and improved?) Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Feb. 5.

Follow @PitLaneLT

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after a staff writing position with IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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janice

what a race day. sympathies to the gibbs family and teams. i don’t like ty but i’d never wish the death of a parent on anyone, especially someone so young.

all the races were the same. leader took off in clean air. so much for the new car. all we realize is that it is dangerous for drivers hitting wall tail end first.

have a peaceful off season.

Bill B

As it turned out, the race was won when Logano won the pole on Saturday. I have no doubt that Logano had one of the fastest cars, but being the leader in clean air and the well documented inability of this new POS car to pass on short tracks was also evident. Congrats to Logano and his team, he is a worthy champion.

As for the Elliott/Chastain deal it was just racing. I can’t blame Chastain for not lifting. In fact, I’d like to see more of that to lessen the amount of blocking that goes on at all the tracks. Chastain did nothing wrong IMO and, while Elliott shouldn’t be happy about the way it turned out, he was as much at fault for coming down and expecting Chastain to let him.

I also agree that it is time to move the final race to a more compelling track. Although there is no track left with this car where you can be sure a fantastic race will be had (and no, a pack racing RP track should not be considered as that would make the championship more arbitrary than it already is). If it must stay at Phoenix then at least increase the length of the race. Maybe 400 miles and each stage should require at least one pit stop (120/120/160). It seems counter-intuitive that the championship race is one of the shortest on the schedule.

As far as I am concerned this new car has been a failure. Perhaps the racing at intermediate tracks have been a little better, but it’s been at the expense of all the other tracks. Add in the fact that the car is less safe for drivers and the number of drivers that had significant injuries, and I don’t see how anyone can say it was a success.

Looking forward to being free from NASCAR for the remainder of 2022, now I can concentrate on football. I am sure on January 2nd I will be wishing the 2023 season was starting. Happy off season to everyone.

Carl D.

Bill B. I couldn’t have said it better, so thanks for saving my fingers the trouble. From a lifelong Clemson fan, go enjoy the rest of the football season. Respect.

Bill B

Right back at you Carl D.

Dav_Daddy

Have to disagree with what you said about the racing with the new car being a failure. The racing at the 1.5 milers has been a heck of a lot more than “a little better” this year. It’s been the best we’ve had since the COT and the disease it infected us with known as the front splitter. Don’t get me started on how much better the racing is at the superspeedways. Unless a bunch of cars following nose to tail around the bottom of the racetrack is your idea of a good time? It’s also far better on road courses. Not that road racing in general and specifically stockcars on a road course isn’t boring as all get out regardless.

The racing on short tracks does need to be addressed somehow along with the safety risks of backing this car into a wall. I’m sure they’ll sort the car safety out, and I’d wager that adding 150hp would sort the short track issue nicely.

Carl D.

Best track for the championship would be Darlington. Unfortunately, running Darlington in November is a heresy. Besides, it rained there this past weekend. Atlanta?

janice

it used to be at atlanta for years. then they’d go to nyc for the banquet. i loved the post-race championship celebration at atlanta.

let’s see it was humid and foggy in am on sunday with temp being 82.

Bill B

You are right, Darlington would be awesome.
Atlanta would have been alright until they turned it into a pack racing track.

Bill W.

I watched all 3 races and the fastest truck/car won. People in the past have said that a lot of races this year were crap shoots and I agree. They need to run the race without stages period.

warren

Thoughts and prayers to the Gibbs family first and foremost.

Couldn’t agree more with Bill B on his comments on the race and the season. As for the season finale. Would love to see them finish where they started in Daytona with no stage racing. Knowing it’s a wild card track and it may never happen but think of what show it would be

DoninAjax

Does anyone want to bet against NA$CAR sending a message to Blaney requesting that he not to pass the leader?

Echo

I bet anything blaney knew he was there to block Chastain should the need arise. Notice Hamlin and bubba must have been running legal cars.

DoninAjax

That might have ended up being the plan but he caught up to Logano really easily and just seemed to back off, likely when he got the same message that Johnson and Larsen got when thy threatened the leaders.

Kurt Smith

If it’s a “fair and balanced” venue you want for the championship race, take it to Daytona or Talladega. Totally disagree that the venue was the reason this race wasn’t as compelling as it could have been. How about giving credit to Penske and the 22 team for building a badass car and letting one of the best in the sport drive it?

Sentiment like this is what causes NASCAR to inflict their endless drive for parity in the name of excitement. And it has never and will never work. What the 22 team did yesterday was called “excellence”, something NASCAR has made every effort to disqualify since 2003. You didn’t enjoy one team putting a spanking on the field? Tell the other teams to get better. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Kicks

Throw out the entire playoff fiasco. There would have been different champions in Xfinity and Cup. As AJ Dinger said in an interview a few weeks back, you can win every race all season and lose it all to a bad day at the final race.

Dav_Daddy

So just like every other sport?

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