Podium Preview: NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race

Can Kyle Larson close out his brilliant season with this year's NASCAR Cup Series championship? (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Can Kyle Larson close out his brilliant season with this year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship? (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

After 35 grueling but exciting chapters of NASCAR Cup Series action, the season wraps up on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. Of course, most of the focus will be on the Championship 4 drivers and teams of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

All things considered, the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix is going to be a barnburner. 312 laps of racing will fly by in a heartbeat as will any chances to make any redemption moves following a mistake. Basically, this finale demands perfection.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Ashley HobbsCody ShoppeJasmine Sharpe, Kobe Lambeth, Luis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorNathan Solomon,  Taylor KitchenTerra Jones and yours truly ruminate over the defining moment of this year and our Cup championship pick!

Podium Preview: NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix
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Question 1
Our panelists recalled the thrilling victory by Bubba Wallace at Talladega on Oct. 4. (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Our panelists recalled the thrilling victory by Bubba Wallace at Talladega on Oct. 4. (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

What has been the most defining moment of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season that’ll be memorable in 10 years?

Hobbs :  There are so many things that happened this season – from milestone victories and comeback stories to new races that thrived and failed. It’s hard to find the one thing that defines the 2021 season because that thing will be what is etched in the history books. And with one race left, who knows what else will come from that.

Shoppe :  I see this season being remembered as the comeback year of Kyle Larson. Regardless of the results of today’s race, this has been the Kyle Larson season. We’ve had some great races and some forgettable ones but throughout it all, the 5 team’s dominance will be the story of 2021! 

Sisoler: It depends on what you like about NASCAR. If you like the underdogs winning, you’ll remember Michael McDowell finally breaking through to get his first career victory at the Daytona 500, or Bubba Wallace getting Michael Jordan his first win as a NASCAR team owner at Talladega. I think, however, the biggest thing that will be remembered is the resurgence of Kyle Larson. His redemption is something incredibly special already, as he came from having his Cup career pretty much in tatters, to become the top driver at Hendrick, and arguably the top driver in the entire Cup garage, in the span of ONE season, and a championship win would be a fairy tale ending for “Yung Money”.

Lambeth :  10 years from now, I think everyone will remember Kyle Larson’s historic comeback season to NASCAR Cup Series competition. Honestly, I do not believe that anyone expected Larson to perform this well so soon with Hendrick Motorsports. He has already solidified himself as the organization’s top driver, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The strong chemistry between Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels gives me Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus vibes.

If Larson brings home the 2021 Cup title, maybe we could see the No. 5 Chevrolet go on a run and win multiple championships. At the end of the day, I believe we’ll remember the 2021 season as the year that ignited years of NASCAR dominance by Larson.

Raynor : There are a few. Running dirt at the Bristol track definitely stands out for me. Also how we had different winners in the season. Kevin Harvick not winning a race after being dominant in 2020. Kyle Larson coming out with a new team and winning. I feel like if he doesn’t win the championship that will be the most memorable thing from 2021 after his domination this year. 

Torres :  This one’s tough per say. We’re talking about 2031 by the time this question is focusing on. It’s been an up and down season to say the least, but there’s three things I see lasting long term. 

The first being the dawn of a new era for schedule diversity. As dreadful the Bristol Dirt Race was. As disastrous as COTA ended up being to the competitors due to weather (F1 are victims too with the pathetic Belgian GP). As big of a farce as the Indy Road Course was due to the curbs, NASCAR is open to expanding. Whether we like it or not, 2021 is just the beginning of such a unique chapter.

Second, should neither Kyle Larson or Denny Hamlin win the title at Phoenix, it further adds fuel to the fire on social media. That being the playoff system not rewarding the best driver but the luckiest. Hope we don’t come down to that fruition because it’ll get severely toxic than ever. Justified or not, it will be toxic.

But the greatest takeaway will be Bubba Wallace’s maiden Cup win at Talladega. It’ll serve a greater impact to the sport in the long haul. I’ve explained after his triumph that it was earned as he had a solid car and put himself in a perfect spot to get the job done. He’s superb on the superspeedways, so the win was earned. I don’t think it’ll be his only win, but this one will remain the longest impact. Not just for the season, but beyond 2021.

Sharpe :  When I look back at this season I think the most defining moments are Team Hendrick’s overall domination of the standings, Kyle Larson’s redemption, Bubba Wallace’s win, and the season’s unpredictable moments.

This year has had so many surprises with finishes, great racing, and drama that it reminds me of the 2014 season. It’s great to see the sport roar back to life and the overall public to take notice. Seeing the stands full of fans, both new and old is a refreshing sight to behold and witness. To see the drivers push themselves to new highs and see veterans in the sport have to adjust and try to adapt was something I wasn’t prepared to encounter.

Question 2
The lot of our panelists think it'll be a lot like 1996 at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

The lot of our panelists think it’ll be a lot like 1996 at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Who will win the NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday? Defend your answer!

Jones :  Without a doubt, Kyle Larson. He and his team have proven time and time again this season that even when their backs are against the wall, they can rally and push through. 

Tiongson :  I was convinced that this was Kyle Larson’s championship after his victory at Las Vegas. I was impressed with how poised he was in the fourth race of the year after dominating at Homestead-Miami. If anything, we saw how Larson and his No. 5 team would make it a habit to dominate races.

I am sold on Larson winning the championship as long as they avoid trouble on Sunday and have that resiliency that won them the Charlotte ROVAL. Overcoming issues with the alternator belt and battery aren’t common for drivers and teams to conquer in a race. I witnessed their tenacity and willingness to respond to the bell in crunch time.

If Larson closes it out with a title, this will be a memorable moment like Jeff Gordon’s heydays in 1995, ‘97-98 and 2001.

Kitchen :  This championship is Kyle Larson’s to lose. He has racked up nine wins and 25 top tens, not to mention, he has led the most laps this season.

However, the fight for the checkered flag will not be easy with two former champions beside him as well as Denny Hamlin, who has been the second best driver in the field. 

Solomon :  I feel like Martin Truex Jr. will shock everyone and win the championship on Sunday. Him and other Toyotas have run well this season on 750-hp tracks, while the Hendrick cars have struggled more on 750-hp tracks. Truex Jr. also won this spring at Phoenix and has just overall performed better on shorter tracks these last few seasons. 

With how crazy this season has been, I have trouble seeing Kyle Larson, the championship favorite, winning the title on Sunday at Phoenix.

That’s two exciting laps around the unique Phoenix Raceway! Now, let’s look at the points and race reports from Race 35, the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville!
Jones nearly snagged a win.

Jones nearly snagged a win.

Meanwhile, Ashley Hobbs wins the 2021 TPF Cup Series championship.

Meanwhile, Ashley Hobbs wins the 2021 TPF Cup Series championship.

Congratulations to Ashley Hobbs on another TPF Cup Series championship! She celebrates her crowning achievement by crunching the numbers for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix!
First, let's consider how your favorite team fares in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix.

First, let’s consider how your favorite team fares in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix.

Since 2004, the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix winner has an average starting spot of 6.3, led an average of 114.9 laps, started within the top five 52.94% of the time and started within the top 10 82.35% of the time.

Since 2004, the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix winner has an average starting spot of 6.3, led an average of 114.9 laps, started within the top five 52.94% of the time and started within the top 10 82.35% of the time.

It's rather tip and toey.

It’s rather tip and toey.

Now, let's consider the trends in the past 10 NASCAR Cup Series Championship Races since 2011.

Now, let’s consider the trends in the past 10 NASCAR Cup Series Championship Races since 2011.

Next, let's consider the trends in the past five NASCAR Cup Series Championship Races since 2016.

Next, let’s consider the trends in the past five NASCAR Cup Series Championship Races since 2016.

Of course, again.

Of course, again.

Next, let’s look at our top 10 starts for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix!
Row 1
Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 2
William Byron and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Landen Ciardullo and Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

William Byron and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Landen Ciardullo and Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 3
Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 4
Cole Custer and Christopher Bell (Photo: Luis Torres)

Cole Custer and Christopher Bell (Photo: Luis Torres)

Row 5
Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

For the final time in 2021, here’s our picks for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix!
A six pack for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race. (Photo: Luis Torres and Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

A six pack for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race. (Photo: Luis Torres and Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Jones : I’m nervously picking Kyle Larson. Obviously, he is the man to beat this season, however, we have seen time and time again how trouble befalls the championship contenders. I think bad luck will hinder their efforts, but Larson’s pit crew has shown all season that they can work together as a team and get their driver back on track with a fighting chance. Watch for Larson to win the race and the 2021 championship.

Tiongson : I am also like Terra in this situation. I feel nervous going with the man who’s really turned things up by incredible wicks in NASCAR. Kyle Larson, this is your moment to shine. A win and a championship at Phoenix will really cement his place as one of the greatest in stock car racing, much less, all of auto racing.

Torres : I’ve been waiting for three months to pick this guy. With this being the championship race, it’s a no brainer to me to pick anyone else but Kyle Larson. I wouldn’t have waited until the finale if I wasn’t confident it’s Larson’s championship to lose. After 312 laps are done, he’ll become the first man since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to score 10 wins in a single season. It also caps off a superb season and a cultivation of his comeback trail that’ll further etch Hendrick Motorsports’ legacy in NASCAR.

Kitchen : It is hard to believe we have reached the end of the season! Luckily, I believe I have played my cards right and saved Kyle Larson for my final race pick of 2021. Like I mentioned earlier, this is Larson’s championship to lose. So, will he be able to win the title when the pressure’s on? Let’s find out!

Hobbs : I mean, the best driver of the entire season, Kyle Larson, is poised to lift the Championship trophy at the end of the day; might as well lift the race trophy as well.

Lambeth : A storybook ending to an epic comeback season will see Kyle Larson celebrating as the race winner and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion!

Sharpe : This Champ 4 driver (Larson) has been on fire this entire season. It wouldn’t shock me if he wins the race and Championship in one move.

TPF Stats : Statistics say Kevin Harvick will win the race and Denny Hamlin will win the Championship over Kyle Larson. Sticking with our rules, The Machine goes down the list and finds William Byron as the next un-picked driver to win.

Raynor : Ryan Blaney. Honestly because I have no one else to choose!

Shoppe : Looking at who’s left for me to pick, what’s a better story then seeing Brad Keselowski leave Team Penske with one final win? So I’ll go with Brad K. He’s been over performing late in the Playoffs and will go out with a walk off victory!

Sisoler : I have saved up both Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin for this season finale at Phoenix (had planned to save Larson too, but I desperately needed points at the ROVAL). While Chase is a tough customer to solve, I think ‘Black Hat’ Hamlin takes down the young guns in the showdown in the desert, wins the race and takes his long-awaited first championship in the Cup Series for Coach Gibbs.

Solomon : Martin Truex Jr. has performed well on 750-hp tracks season and he won at this track in the spring. I feel good about Truex on Sunday.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine! Take the shot to save your life and others! Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, be sure to use coupon code TPF2021 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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