Turn 2 Blog: How hard should the others race the contenders in the finale?

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

Which driver is the most surprising entry in the 2022 version of the Championship 4?

Richard: The answer here probably depends on when the question was actually posed. Few, if any, had Ross Chastain penciled in as a serious NASCAR Cup Series championship contender before the season started. But once things got underway, the watermelon farmer and his relative upstart Trackhouse Racing team quickly showed themselves to be legitimate front runners week after week. So the easy answer would be to say Ross Chastain.

However, I am actually going to say Christopher Bell here. When many followers of the sport might have been asked to rank the drivers in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, the pilot of the No. 20 Toyota would most likely have been listed last behind Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. yet it is Bell who is still standing going into the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

But more than just the fact that he has often been the forgotten soldier within his own organization, Bell twice during this year’s NASCAR Playoffs had his back against the wall but was able to pull off a win to stay alive and Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville was one of those two times.

A good underdog story never hurts, and for my money, Christopher Bell makes for an unexpected underdog story.

Ross Chastain would have been considered a surprise contender at the start of 2022

Michael: Chastain is the most surprising to me. As you said, not many people would have predicted him being one of the final four at Phoenix at the start of the season. And even after a strong spring and early summer, he kind of tailed off in the late summer as the Playoffs were starting. Not to mention ruffling some feathers that seemed to have been a distraction along the way.

This team hasn’t been around very long. To get both drivers into the Playoffs and one into the Championship 4 is a huge accomplishment. They’ve provided the blueprint for new teams to come into Cup racing.

Another reason I picked Chastain as being a surprise is that last lap move. He was several points below the cutline and looked to be done. Then, the move everyone is talking about took place and he finds himself battling for a championship at Phoenix.

How hard should others race the contenders in the championship finale?

Richard: I have always been one who has said that everyone in this race should drive no differently than they have driven all year long. Remembering the 2011 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when everyone else rather obviously laid over for contenders Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, I have advocated for a race and not a layover.

But it is much easier for me to sit at a desk and say that than it is for someone who is actually driving in the race to carry that out. No one wants to be remembered as “that guy” who took out a title contender by making a questionable move. Heck, that driver might even briefly knock some politician or celebrity off of the “Trending” list on Twitter.

This year’s title race does have an odd twist in that Kyle Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports team will be competing for an owner’s championship while four other drivers race for individual honors. That may add one additional element into the mix.

In an ideal world everyone will compete in the championship deciding race in the same way they would in any other race. But everyone also has to know that the roles may someday be reversed and they would not want to be taken out by a non contender.

Michael: If I’m a driver or a car owner, I’d want to or want my driver to race the same every week. If not, then just eliminate everyone not in the playoffs. I appreciated some of the non-playoff drivers being up front for the win and racing all drivers the same.

I will say this. Going back to my previous comment about Chastain ruffling some feathers, I can see where some of the non-playoff drivers might race him harder than the other three. It might be somebody you least expect it to do so.

We both picked Joey Logano to win the championship

Who will be the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series champion?

Richard: A case could be made for any of the four drivers.

Chase Elliott has been solid all season. Christopher Bell is hot after winning two consecutive last chance races. Ross Chastain has shown that he obviously is not afraid to take risks to achieve that goal.

But ultimately, I believe it will Joey Logano and Team Penske that will come away as the champion just as they did back in 2018. That team has always been good at pushing the sidebar noise aside and focusing on the task at hand.

Michael: Unless something really goofy happens at the end of the race, my pick is also Logano. He has the mentality to get to the front and stay there barring a pit snafu. Elliott hasn’t been showing much during the playoffs. Again, Chastain is the wild card. How others race him and if throws another Hail Mary will be something to watch.

Please consider also reading:

Turn 2 Blog: What drivers are finishing strong?

Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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