CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR's championship has come down to a pair of Hall of Fame team owners, two Chevrolets against two Toyotas, racing in the Arizona desert for the sport's top prize.
Rick Hendrick, the winningest team owner in NASCAR history, is sending Kyle Larson and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott to Phoenix Raceway on Sunday in search of a 14th title for mighty Hendrick Motorsports.
Joe Gibbs, a member of both the NASCAR and Pro Football Hall of Fames, will counter with Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Gibbs has won five previous Cup championships (and three Super Bowls) but none with Hamlin or Truex.
It is a winner-take-all conclusion at sold-out Phoenix, where Elliott's victory a year ago clinched the first Cup championship for NASCAR's most popular driver. Hendrick will be the favorite behind nine-race winner Larson and its on-track domination this season: Alex Bowman's win Sunday at Martinsville Speedway was the fourth in a row for Hendrick and 16th through 35 races.
But Bowman's win triggered tension that should carry through the week and into Sunday's finale. Hamlin, a Virginia native and five-time Martinsville winner, was spun from the lead by Bowman to the surprise pleasure of what should have been Hamlin's home crowd.
When he later drove his car to the frontstretch to prevent a Bowman victory celebration — Hamlin flipped both middle fingers at Bowman through his windshield — the crowd drowned out his interview over the public address system with resounding boos.
Hamlin blamed the backlash on NASCAR's most popular driver.
“It’s just Chase Elliott fans, man. They don’t think straightly,” Hamlin said of the crowd.
Elliott, the first driver in at least a decade to go toe-to-toe and door-to-door with Kevin Harvick and come out on top, laughed at Hamlin’s verbal jab.
“I’m going to lose so much sleep tonight. I might not sleep at all, that’s how concerned I am,” Elliott said. “My fans don’t care either, by the way.”
This championship is Hendrick vs. Gibbs in head-to-head competition, but four drivers will be individually racing for NASCAR's top prize. Hamlin, loser in three previous championship battles, took an aggressive approach as soon as Bowman tried to celebrate a Martinsville victory Hamlin felt had been taken from him.
“Don't poke the bear,” Hamlin posted on social media after Martinsville. “See y'all in Phoenix."
Hamlin led the Cup standings for 22 consecutive weeks but lost the regular-season championship to Larson over the final three weeks. Larson has dominated the year — he accounts for nine of the 17 wins among the final four drivers — but the elimination format playoffs that NASCAR introduced in 2014 has made the actual championship winner a crapshoot.
It's one thing to make it into the 16-driver playoff field. But getting to the championship, through three rounds of elimination followed by a 10th race finale, is a chore that allows for very little error. Then winning the Cup? Just be the best Sunday at Phoenix.
Hamlin agrees with the composition of the final four but also noted a different title format might have created a dramatic battle between good friends Hamlin and Larson. Instead, both could lose in Phoenix.
“I’ve said for many, many weeks now that it would be a disservice if someone other than the two of us didn’t win. He’s obviously probably the most deserving over the course of the year that he’s had from start to finish,” Hamlin said. “The format, you just never know. It’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race. I think all of (us) would be deserving champions, obviously Kyle would make the most sense."
Larson was given a second chance this year in the Cup Series by Rick Hendrick when NASCAR lifted Larson's 2020 suspension for using a racial slur while racing online. His win in the $1 million exhibition All-Star race sent Larson to victory lane 10 times this year, and he twice strung together three-race winning streaks.
And it was Larson in May who celebrated the record-breaking 269th Cup victory — in Hendrick's backyard of Charlotte Motor Speedway, no less — that pushed Rick Hendrick past Richard Petty as the winningest owner in sport history.
It's overshadowed Elliott's championship season, but he was a late bloomer last season, when he ended Hendrick's three-year losing shutout from the championship race. As seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson drove his final NASCAR races, Elliott stepped up for Hendrick and won three of the final five races for his first Cup.
Larson has been the star, but Elliott has remained in the mix. He's won two races, both on road courses, but had a monthlong spat with Harvick during the playoffs. Elliott held his ground both on the track and off and now will race to defend his title.
“Certainly hasn’t been pretty. At the end of the day, having a shot next week is really all that matters,” Elliott said. “Frankly, I feel like you make it to Phoenix, it’s anybody’s game.”
Truex, who quietly had collected four wins this season, drove a battered car at Martinsville into the fourth and final slot in the playoff field. Just making it through the round of eight, which was cut to four Sunday, was a win for Truex.
“It’s the eight best guys of the year trying to whittle it down to four. You know it’s going to be tight, close, every spot is going to matter,” Truex said. "You come down to Martinsville, you know it’s going to be a nail-biter, which it was.
“Next week it’s an honor and pleasure to get to race for championships. Only four of us get to do it. It’s a fun week. It’s definitely a lot less pressure than trying to go eight to four.”
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