NASCAR Martinsville Auto Racing

Kyle Larson, left, leads the Cup Series with nine wins this season — 10 including the non-points All-Star Race. He and Martin Truex Jr., second from left, are two of the final four title contenders, along with Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.

After 35 races, it comes down to Sunday.

The Championship 4 is set with the race for the NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway.

Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in a pair of Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets will be battling Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. in a pair of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. However, Phoenix is not like Daytona or Talladega where teammates play a significant role with drafting.

This race is every man for himself with one to take home the championship trophy from the unique 1-mile track. Success over the first 35 races doesn’t guarantee a driver the championship.

That was the case in 2018 when Joey Logano, who didn’t have the track record of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick or Truex that season, won the title race at Homestead. Similarly, Elliott got hot at the right time last season and captured the 2020 title.

Here’s a brief look at the championship contenders.


No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Hometown: Elk Grove, California

15 career wins

Larson is the championship favorite based on his 2021 NASCAR performance, which doesn’t include him tearing it up on the dirt tracks. Fellow contender Hamlin stated it would be a disappointment if he or Larson doesn’t win the championship. He went farther saying Larson is actually the most deserving with his track record.

He has a series-best nine wins, has 25 top-10 finishes and has led 2,474 laps, a record since the schedule was set at 36 races in 2001.

Larson led 77 laps at Martinsville after starting on the pole. He finished 14th on what he described as his worst track. With his spot in the Championship 4 already clinched, the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was courtesy at Martinsville, even pulling over early in the race to let teammate Elliott pass by.

It’s a safe bet he won’t be as courtesy at Phoenix, a track where he has five top-five finishes in 14 starts. He was seventh at Phoenix earlier this season, and the fact he’s yet to win there isn’t a big concern. After all, Elliott hadn’t won at the Arizona track before last season’s championship race.


No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Hometown: Dawsonville, Georgia

13 career wins

Elliott, the defending series and race champion, led 153 of 312 laps to win last season’s final race. He has a good track record at Phoenix with four top-10 finishes in 11 races. He was fifth in March and has 402 laps led on the flat 1-mile track.

The series’ most popular driver swept the first two stages at Martinsville and led 289 laps. He got mired behind on a restart with 100 laps to go and his car faded in the late stages with a 16th-place finish. He has two wins on the season, both on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Road America.


No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Hometown: Chesterfield, Virginia

46 career wins

Hamlin overcame a pair of early penalties to lead most of the third stage at Martinsville before his contact with Alex Bowman resulted in a 24th place finish. His post-race antics included impeding Bowman’s victory celebration and throwing out profanities in an interview which resulted in Hamlin booed vehemently by his home-state fans.

Hamlin, who lived one winter in Arizona, has the best track record of any of the Championship 4 at Phoenix. He has two wins and ranks one behind Larson with 18 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes. He led 33 laps and finished third in March. His 46 career wins rank second only to 50 for Hall of Famer Junior Johnson as the most victories without a championship.


No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Hometown: Mayetta, New Jersey

31 career wins

Truex, the 2017 NASCAR champion, edged teammate Kyle Busch by three points for the final playoff spot. He posted a solid fourth-place finish at Martinsville after recovering from an incident when he slammed hard into the backstretch wall. He has four wins on the season, tying him with Bowman for second most behind Larson.

He is the most recent winner at Phoenix, leading 64 laps to win there in March. He also won earlier this season at Richmond, the track closest in shape to Phoenix. However, his overall record in the desert shows just five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 31 starts.

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Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press with a lifelong passion for motorsports. The father of two attended ETSU and served in the Tennessee Army National Guard.

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