After nine months, 35 points-paying races, two exhibition events, 19 different race winners, paddock parity like we've never seen before and nearly as much controversy as there have been thrilling moments, NASCAR's 16 playoff participants have spent their fall being whittled down to a dozen, eight and now, finally, the coveted Championship 4.
That quartet will battle mano a mano and machine to machine for at least 312 laps on the odd-shaped speedway that thinks it's a short track, the one-mile Phoenix Raceway. The format is simple. The highest finisher among those four will be crowned the champion of the 74th season of NASCAR's premier series.
So, who are those four? How did they get here? How do they run at Phoenix? And how do they approach the pressure of racing for a title? Read ahead as we give you the stats, the path and also a short Q&A with each one.
2022: 3 wins, 4 poles, 12 top 5s, 19 top 10s, 6 DNFs
2022 Playoffs: 2 wins, 1 pole, 5 top 5/top 10s, 2 DNFs
Playoff history: 2nd appearance, 2 wins, both this year
Best championship finish: 12th, 2021
Phoenix career stats: 5 starts, 0 wins, 0 top 5s, 2 top 10s (both 9th-place finishes), 0 DNFs, 17.0 average finish
ESPN: On Sunday you won your way into this Championship 4 after you started this playoff round wrecked in the Bubba Wallace/Kyle Larson mess at Las Vegas and finished 34th. And to get into that round you had to win on the Charlotte Roval because you'd also started that round with a 34th. Dude, that's a tough way to make a living.
Bell: It is. And that's why I was the most emotional I have ever been behind the wheel of a race car, right after winning at Martinsville last weekend. My first thoughts were of my mom and dad, because when I left Vegas, I was just so down in the dumps. Mom and Dad said over and over, "You can still do it, you can still do it." I didn't really believe them, especially going to Martinsville where I'd had no success, and then there we were, in Victory Lane.
ESPN: You have to have those anchors in life.
Bell: Like [crew chief] Adam Stevens. He has seen it all. He won a couple of Cup titles with Kyle Busch, as everyone knows. He never changes. If we win or lose or crash or if I spin out 18 times, he's the same every week. His routine's the same. He just stays very, very calm, cool, collected and attacks every race like that, whether it's in April or this weekend racing for a championship. That trickles down to my mechanics, road mechanics, shop mechanics, pit crew, everyone that has a hand in this. That's how you go to Martinsville 35 points beneath the cut line at a track that I really haven't come close to winning at in the past and do what we did.
ESPN: I know the sample size isn't great, but you've not exactly set Phoenix Raceway on fire, either.
Bell: But I love Phoenix. During my Xfinity days, it was one of my favorite racetracks [three top fives and a win in five starts]. But on the Cup side, you can't measure a guy's stats when it's the final four championship race like Phoenix has been. If you're not in that group, your only goal is to not interfere with those guys. So, not in the championship, I was really just trying to stay out of the way.
ESPN: And now you're in the championship, so ...
Bell: Yeah, let's hope they remember that and stay out of my way this time [laughs]!
2022: 2 wins, 0 poles, 14 top 5s, 20 top 10s, 5 DNFs
2022 Playoffs: 0 wins, 0 poles, 4 top 5s, 6 top 10s, 0 DNFs
Playoff history: 1st appearance, no wins
Best championship finish: 20th, 2021
Phoenix career stats: 8 starts, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 1 top 10 (2nd-place finish, March 2022), 0 DNFs, 20.5 average finish
ESPN: OK, first things first. That last-lap move at Martinsville where you went from 10th to fifth riding the wall like Tony Hawk and I think you were traveling 300 mph. What has it been like this week now that you are the greatest race car driver who ever lived?
Chastain: [Laughs] I still can't believe that it worked. Yeah, with the outreach from people across the world, it's crazy. That's what's so great about racing, that we have the potential to see something like that every now and then. And every now and then something wild is gonna happen that kind of defies physics.
ESPN: What it did feel like?
Chastain: It felt that fast. Once they said how many spots I needed, there was no option. It was gonna happen. And when I grabbed fifth gear, I wasn't planning on it, but I was gonna run out gear or I was going to hit the chip. So I grabbed fifth gear, right as I did, I passed my breakpoint, where I should have slowed down. That's when stuff just sped up like real fast. The wild part is that as I went around the wall, it just didn't slow down. It didn't lose its speed. I started letting go of the steering wheel because I really wasn't doing anything and I thought about the pit gate [the section of the front stretch wall that opens as a gate]. I didn't want to break my hands.
ESPN: That moment, to me, kind of sums up the 2022 Ross Chastain experience. You're driving for what's supposed to be a second-tier team in Trackhouse Racing. You won on a road course and at Talladega in the same car. You had that weird off-road experience on the Indianapolis road course. Yet, here you are.
Chastain: If I wasn't driving this car, I would be farming, and you know what, I would be watching these races on the weekend. I would be a fan. I am a fan. And this team, this is a an easy team to root for as a fan. We're in the same building that Ganassi Racing was when I walked in, in 2018 to drive an Xfinity Car, but since then, what a roller coaster. We're going to run full time and then we're shut down and then I get into the Cup car and now the team is sold and there's a Next Gen car. I was at the shop this morning before I left for Phoenix, and I thought about all of that. A lot of us are still there together. Again, that's an easy bunch to pull for if you are a NASCAR fan.
2022: 5 wins, 4 poles, 12 top 5s, 20 top 10s, 4 DNFs
2022 Playoffs: 1 win (Talladega), 3 top 10s, 2 DNFs
Playoff history: 7th appearance, 7 wins
Best championship finish: 2020 Cup Series champion
Phoenix career stats: 13 starts, 1 win (2020 title clincher), 5 top 5s, 8 top 10s, 1 DNF, 10.7 average finish
ESPN: Chase Elliott. I literally remember the day you were born and now here you are, the cagey, experienced 26-year old veteran ...
Elliott: Yeah [laughs], I don't necessarily feel like a veteran. When you step back and look at it, this will be the end of my seventh year in Cup, which is crazy for you and I both. I think about it and it's like, dang, I've been doing this longer than I've done any other form of racing in my career. I think for anybody, whether you're a racecar driver or not, I think your mid-20s are important years, just in your life in general. You're navigating different things. You're trying to understand kind of where things are headed and as it pertains to the racing side of things. But having the opportunity to race for a championship these last three years, it's been a great honor.
ESPN: But when a team and a driver make it to the final race three straight times, does it start to feel like business as usual?
Elliott: No way. Making the Championship 4 is a very difficult thing to do. Something that I certainly don't take for granted. Our path to this race these three years has been very different. In 2020, we had to win Martinsville just to be in the final four and won the championship, and that was the craziest seven days of my life. Last year we got there with consistency. This year we were all over the place, but those wins got us enough bonus points to keep going. As long as your best weekend is your last one, that's the only goal now.
ESPN: I will not be in Phoenix. I will be in Athens, Georgia, to see your beloved Dawgs host Tennessee. Sorry about that.
Elliott: Don't be. You certainly aren't alone in that. I wish I could be in both places at once, but if it makes you feel any better, I have a lot of friends who have already informed me that they will watching the race on TV this Sunday because they have chosen to stay home in Georgia for the game. I don't take offense. It's a big game. I mean, not bigger than mine, but that's cool [laughs]. I'll see you at the SEC championship next month.
2022: 3 wins, 3 poles, 10 top 5s, 16 top 10s, 4 DNFs
2022 Playoffs: 1 win (Las Vegas), 2 poles, 4 top 10s, 1 DNF
Playoff history: 9th appearance, 11 wins
Best championship finish: 2018 Cup Series champion
Phoenix career stats: 27 starts, 2 wins (most recent March 2020), 7 top 5s, 15 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 13.1 average finish
ESPN: There are really two pairs in this foursome. The two veterans and the two younger, relative newbies. You are the oldest of the group and were one of the original NASCAR youth movement guys. How different is this now for you?
Logano: The feeling of comfort of having been, what, five times now in the Championship 4, you kind of know what's coming around the corner. How this week is. How to prepare for the race itself. It's much more enjoyable for sure [laughs].
ESPN: So, do you subscribe to the notion I hear from football coaches all the time that this is just another game, just another race, approaching it that way?
Logano: I don't agree with that at all. It's the championship race. It's everything. When you do that, you're just trying to minimize the race to make you feel more comfortable. I don't want to be comfortable. The added pressure and intensity, that's how you find a different level out of yourself. Winning championships is why I do this. It's why I've always done it. So, none of this should feel normal because you're living that dream.
ESPN: When does it feel normal, if it ever does?
Logano: When the window net goes up. when you put your helmet on. It's like, all right, everybody's gone. The noise is gone. I can just go do my job and do what I'm prepared to do and do that. That piece of it. And I think the whole team kind of feels the same way, right? But once the big crew gets ready, they're geared up. It's just them right when [crew chief] Paul [Wolfe] gets up on the box. It's all on his engineers like that. That's kind of that moment where it's like, "OK, all the garbage is gone. It's about winning at this point."
ESPN: In other words, when people like me can no longer get to you and get in the way ...
Logano: I called it garbage, didn't I? That kind of came out wrong. Sorry. But yeah, now get out of my way, McGee, so I can race for that championship [laughs]!