In NASCAR, as with most sports, there’s no substitute for preparation, especially when getting ready for the final race if you’re part of the Championship 4.
The earlier a driver and team can nail down a berth in the Championship Round — where four drivers compete straight up for the title, and the highest finisher among them is the champion — the more time they have to prepare and ensure no stone is left unturned.
So it was with Joey Logano and his No. 22 Team Penske bunch in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. By clinching a spot in the Championship 4 with their victory in the Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas, the group led by veteran crew chief Paul Wolfe had three weeks to fine-tune for the finale at Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the three drivers they competed against for the title, Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain, and Christopher Bell, didn’t lock up their respective berths in the Championship 4 until they took the checkered flag in the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville.
That means Logano’s team had three weeks to prep for hunting a championship in the Arizona desert. His championship challengers each had just one. But, in the end, did the extra time afforded to Logano and his team give them a major advantage?
History suggests being the first Championship 4 qualifier seems to matter — sometimes
Looking back over the last five years of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, there’s been three occasions when the first driver to punch a ticket to the Championship 4 went on to claim the title. In the other two seasons, one of the last drivers to lock up a Championship 4 berth came out on top.
Let’s take a closer look, beginning with 2018. That year, Joey Logano opened the Round of 8 with a victory, giving his team more time to prepare than competitors. He won the final race and the championship over Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch.
The 2019 season was a much different story, however. Busch wasn’t assured of qualifying for the Championship 4 until the checkered flag waved on the season’s penultimate race. In fact, Busch didn’t even win in the Round of 8 but made the Championship 4 based on points.
The 2020 season produced a similar scenario. Chase Elliott did not solidify his place in the Championship 4 until the final event in the three-race Round of 8. This culiminated in the Hendrick Motorsports driver earning a Championship 4-clinching win at Martinsville.
Like with Busch the previous year, Elliott and his team managed to win the final race and the championship despite having only a week to prepare to battle in the Championship Round. Like in 2018 and 2022, Logano captured a Championship 4-clinching triumph in the first Round of 8 race. This time, it didn’t provide an advantage for Logano and his team, who finished third in the 2020 standings.
In 2021, becoming the first driver to secure a Championship 4 berth paid dividends for the first time in three seasons. Kyle Larson won the Round of 8 opener at Texas and the following weekend at Kansas. This forced those he would ultimately race in the Championship Round to sweat it out through the end of the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville.
With two extra weeks to get a jumpstart on Phoenix, Larson and his team cruised to the win and the championship in the Valley of the Sun.
Joey Logano and Paul Wolfe used prep time for Phoenix to their advantage, and it paid off
The last five years of playoff history indicate that it’s a coin flip as to whether a driver gains a huge leg up by becoming the first to solidify a Championship 4 appearance. However, according to Speedway Digest, Joey Logano and Paul Wolfe believe it made a difference in 2022.
“It’s really nice because it’s even a bigger advantage than it was when we were racing (the Championship 4) in Miami, because the car has to leave sooner now, right?” Logano said at Championship 4 Media Day in Phoenix leading up to the 2022 finale. “We had to leave Wednesday noontime to get to Phoenix on time. You’ve got to be really prepared because if you race Sunday and you finally realize you’re in (the Championship 4), then you have Monday, Tuesday. Wednesday, you better be done with everything.
“In that time, the driver has to go do media, the driver has all these other things they got to do on top of that. There’s not time to prep the correct way, whereas our team, we had a couple weeks to really focus in 100%, at least 95%, on Phoenix.”
Wolfe, not surprisingly, turned his attention to the season finale immediately following Logano’s Championship 4-clinching triumph at Las Vegas.
“I started focusing on Phoenix right after that win, that next Monday, and making sure we didn’t miss anything,” the veteran crew chief said moments after the Championship Round. “How much of an advantage is that? I don’t know. I don’t know that you can quantify it. But I’d like to feel like I was as prepared as I could be coming into this weekend. And with a lot of great support from our teammates and stuff coming here this weekend, we were able to unload very fast and then go through a lot of things we wanted to try to find a little bit more.”
Speed they did find in Logano’s No. 22 Ford. It was nothing less than a rocket ship at Phoenix, where Logano first won the pole, then led 187 of 312 laps on the way to the win and the championship.
While it may be hard to draw firm conclusions on whether becoming the first driver and team to make the Championship 4 gives that group a significant boost on Championship Sunday, this is certain: It doesn’t hurt anything.