By Jerry Bonkowski
After more than nine months, 36 points-paying races, a new “Next Generation” car and so many highlights and sidelights as well, the 2022 NASCAR Cup season finally comes to an end Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
In the simplest of forms, it will be a contest that boils down between two former past Cup champions – Joey Logano and Chase Elliott – and two drivers seeking their first Cup crowns, namely, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell.
I never wavered during the playoffs, feeling that Chastain, Elliott and Logano would make it to Phoenix for the big showdown. But I was off on one pick, feeling extremely confident that Ryan Blaney would have been the final Championship 4 contender.
And to top that all off, I felt Blaney would ultimately wind up winning the championship even without winning one race. Sadly, my prognostication – and Blaney – both fell short. And I bet NASCAR officials had a collective sigh after that. It’s nothing against Blaney, but if you were one of the sport’s top officials, wouldn’t you feel odd – if not somewhat humiliated – if your ultimate champion is also a guy who never won even one race during the course of the season?
(Of course, I’m still thinking that Blaney CAN finally win a race, and that’s Sunday at Phoenix. But that’s a story for another day.)
I also anticipated that even though he showed his usual moments of strength throughout the season, Denny Hamlin would once again not make the Championship 4 – and indeed that’s the case. Frankly, I saw this as Hamlin’s last chance to win a championship, and now that he’s fallen short yet again, I feel he’ll join others like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards who never were able to reach the top of the Cup mountain and win the championship.
So, does experience or youthful exuberance win out Sunday when it comes time for NASCAR to crown its newest champion?
I’m kind of torn on this one. Since this past Sunday’s race at Martinsville concluded, I have gone on record to say Logano is my pick to once again take the championship, to go along with his first from 2018.
But Chastain, the Florida watermelon farmer, has such a compelling human interest story (not to mention the way he went around Martinsville on the final lap in a move he learned from video games, to earn himself a trip to the Championship 4), that I would be equally as happy to see him take his first crown.
And then there’s Bell, who has been kind of the Little Engine That Could this season, particularly his performance during the playoffs, including his wins at the Roval and also at Martinsville that pushed him forward to an automatic berth at Phoenix.
Then there’s the one guy that virtually no one is talking about, which is something I feel very odd about, particularly since he led the standings most of the regular season and comes into Phoenix with a series-high five wins.
Of course, I’m talking about Chase Elliott, who is seeking his second Cup title to go along with his first crown in 2020.
I don’t know why Elliott has been riding so low below the radar, at least from a media perspective. If you look at what he did in his first championship season vs. what he’s done so far in 2022, the numbers are virtually identical.
In 2020, Elliott had five wins, 15 top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes.
In 2022, Elliott had five wins, 12 top-5 and 20 top-10 finishes.
In 2020, Elliott had a 9.0 starting average and an 11.7 finishing average en route to taking the championship.
In the first 35 races of 2022, Elliott has a 10.8 starting average and a 12.0 finishing average.
Bottom line, are we seeing essentially an instant replay of how Elliott won the championship in 2020 in Sunday’s race?
With all due respect to Awesome Bill’s only son, I just don’t get the same vibe and feeling that Chase will win this season’s title. Call it a gut feeling or what have you, but I just don’t see him taking the crown.
So, here’s how I’m going to handicap the four Championship 4 finalists:
Champion: Joey Logano. He has the perfect combination of experience and success, and with teammates like Ryan Blaney and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Austin Cindric, I think Team Penske has a better chance of holding off Elliott and his Team Hendrick counterparts.
2nd (not necessarily in the final race results but rather in the final season results): Christopher Bell. I really feel like Bell will wind up as the biggest surprise of the playoffs. Had the season gone on another 3-4 more races, Bell could have made his move and his play to win it all. But there’s always next year.
3rd: Chase Elliott. He’ll fight and make Sunday’s race interesting, but there’s just some inherent unknown floating around in my gut that says he doesn’t win it all. Granted, Elliott has done a fantastic job driving the Next Gen car this season and leads all drivers with wins (five), but a second championship is not a given and I think head-to-head, Logano has a better edge over Elliott.
4th: Ross Chastain. It really pains me to rank Chastain as the lowest-finishing driver in the Championship 4 standings, especially since I found out that Chastain is one of the few people I know or who have heard of who also likes to eat watermelon with salt sprinkled on it, just like me! But I digress. Chastain has done a great job this season, but he’s also had a number of conflicts with other drivers that could potentially come back to haunt him in the race that matters the most. He’s made a number of mistakes, but he will have learned from them and I potentially see Chastain still becoming a Cup champion – just not in 2022.
All things considered, it’s been a heck of a season and I’m sad to see it come to an end. But then again, we’ll be back at the L.A. Coliseum in less than three months, so that should keep me warm when there’s two feet of snow on the ground.
Enjoy Sunday’s race, everyone. I don’t necessarily think it will be a race for the ages, or even one of NASCAR’s most classic races, but it should still fill the bill of being both entertaining and one that will produce a great deal of drama, excitement and maybe even end up with a few storylines that folks will be talking about for many years to come!
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski