It all comes down to one event.
After 35 hard-fought races, four drivers will race the field and each other Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC) for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
It was a long, strange trip to arrive at this destination. The season kicked off with four races then came to a screeching halt as the sports world shut down for the coronavirus pandemic. Two months later, NASCAR racing resumed on an improvised schedule that managed to squeeze in another 22 races to reach the end of the regular season.
The playoffs began with 16 drivers, including two heavy favorites: Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who had racked up multiple wins in the spring and summer months. But following three playoff rounds of three races apiece and three eliminations, Hamlin survived the gauntlet while Harvick was bounced in a stunner last week at Martinsville Speedway.
Hamlin, still seeking his first Cup Series title, will be joined by a pair of past champions who happen to also be teammates: Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. And then there is the wild card, the youngest member of the Championship 4, Chase Elliott, who overcame a near must-win situation last weekend at Martinsville with the biggest victory — so far — in his young career.
There are no more favorites anymore. One race will decide the champion and whomever finishes the best among the four will take the title. Let's meet the contenders:
Denny Hamlin drives the No. 11 Toyota. (Photo: Charlie Riedel, Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network)
Born: Nov. 18, 1980, in Tampa, Florida
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing. Car: No. 11 Toyota.
Career Cup wins: 44
2020 stats: 7 wins, 17 top-fives, 20 top-10s
Phoenix stats: 30 starts, 2 wins, 13 top-fives, 17 top-10s
March 2020 Phoenix result: Finished 20th
Notable: Hamlin was the series runner-up in 2010 and finished in the top four three other times (2006, 2014, 2019).
What he's saying: "This one is a tough one to handicap. From my perspective, I'm a numbers guy, I like the law of averages. If I just keep putting myself in that final four, eventually things will fall my way."
Brad Keselowski drives the No. 2 Ford. (Photo: Gerry Broome, Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network)
Born: Feb. 12, 1984, in Rochester Hills, Michigan
Team: Team Penske. Car: No. 2 Ford.
Career Cup wins: 34
2020 stats: 4 wins, 12 top-fives, 23 top-10s
Phoenix stats: 22 starts, 0 wins, 6 top-fives, 10 top-10s
March 2020 Phoenix result: Finished 11th
Notable: This year marks the second time Keselowski has qualified for the Championship 4 (also 2017). NASCAR changed to the current playoff format two years after Keselowski won his lone title.
What he's saying: "Our team is motivated. They're hungry. I'm looking at a group of people, and I think I'm the only one that's ever won a Cup championship on the entire [No. 2] team lineup. … I want to win a championship, of course, for myself, but as much as I want to win it for myself, I want to see the people around [me] get that opportunity like I had before to enjoy it, to celebrate it."
Joey Logano drives the No. 22 Ford. (Photo: Darron Cummings, Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network)
Born: May 24, 1990, in Middletown, Connecticut
Team: Team Penske. Car: No. 22 Ford.
Career Cup wins: 26
2020 stats: 3 wins, 11 top-fives, 20 top-10s
Phoenix stats: 23 starts, 2 wins, 5 top-fives, 12 top-10s
March 2020 Phoenix result: Winner
Notable: Logano has advanced to the championship race four times since the current playoff format was introduced in 2014.
What he's saying: "Honestly I feel like this year feels a lot like 2018 … where we had not the best summer months, then we kind of picked it up as the playoffs started. We went from in the summer months searching for a direction to make our car faster, to being in contention to win. Now in my eyes, like I said in 2018, feeling like you're the favorites by winning the first race in the third round. I honestly feel that way again."
Chase Elliott drives the No. 9 Chevrolet. (Photo: Brynn Anderson, Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network)
Born: Nov. 28, 1995, in Dawsonville, Georgia
Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Car: No. 9 Chevrolet.
Career Cup wins: 10
2020 stats: 4 wins, 14 top-fives, 21 top-10s
Phoenix stats: 9 starts, 0 wins, 2 top-fives, 5 top-10s
March 2020 Phoenix result: Finished seventh
Notable: Elliott is the youngest driver in the Championship 4, but he would be only be the third-youngest Cup Series champion after Bill Rexford in 1950 and Jeff Gordon in 1995.
What he's saying: "The big thing from talking to dad [NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott] that I feel like he's kind of mentioned is just enjoy these moments because these aren't things you can take for granted. You don't know when your last race win is. You don't what tomorrow brings. Nothing's guaranteed, right?"
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