Eckel 4 NASCAR Championship Picks: It's down to Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr.
Cup Series Championship, Phoenix, 3 p.m. TV: NBC
It’s come down to this: The defending champion, the hottest driver of 2021, and two veterans, one of whom has never won the NASCAR Cup Championship.
The NASCAR Cup Championship happens Sunday in Phoenix where Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will battle for the 2021 title.
Here’s a quick look at each of The Final Four and then the selections of The Eckel Four.
Chase Elliott (7-2): Elliott, a Georgia native, has seen his Atlanta Braves win the World Series and his Georgia Bulldogs reach the No. 1 spot in college football, he’s hoping to continue that trend Sunday. The defending NASCAR champion is also looking to become the first repeat winner since Jimmie Johnson won five straight titles from 2006-10. Elliott has won twice this season, but also finished second to Larson four times. The youngest driver of the quartet — he won’t turn 26 until later this month — won the championship here a year ago and finished fifth in Phoenix during the season.
Denny Hamlin (4-1): Hamlin’s 46 career wins are by far the most of any of the Final Four drivers (Truex is next at 31), and while this is his fourth Final Four appearance the veteran has never claimed a Cup Championship. He was consistent all season — his 25 top 10 finishes share the lead with Larson — and among the point leaders but didn’t win a race until the start of the playoffs and then won twice. He comes into the championship after a very controversial finish a week ago in Martinsville that ended in a heated exchange with race winner Alex Bowman. Hamlin has a 2019 win at Phoenix and finished third here during this past regular season.
Kyle Larson (7-5): The 29-year-old Larson, who was suspended for most of the 2020 season, has been 2021’s best driver. His nine wins are more than double of any other driver (Truex has four). He also has the most top five finishes at 20 and tied Hamlin with 25 top 10 finishes. Larson has led 2,474 laps this year, which broke Jeff Gordon’s record of 2,320 set in 2001. The playoffs haven’t had an affect on him either. He won four of the nine playoff races to easily clinch a spot in this his first Final Four. He’s never won in Phoenix, but in his last five races here he’s been in the top five.
Martin Truex Jr. (9-2): It’s been an all or nothing year for the New Jersey native and the 2017 Cup Champion. Truex’s four wins in 2021 are second to Larson, but his 12 top five finishes and 17 top 10 finishes both rank fourth among the four championship drivers. He also had seven finishes of 20th or worse and two where he finished 19th. All four of Truex’s wins, however, have come with 750 horsepower package which will be used Sunday in Phoenix where he won during the regular season. Truex raced very well early in the season to get to the playoffs and then did just enough to make it to his fifth Final 4, which is tied (with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch) for the most among active drivers.
Mike “Left Turn’’ Sweeney: Kyle Larson “I picked him from the start (of the playoffs), so I’m not changing now. I like Truex for second.’’
Scott “Tobacco Road’’ Baker: Kyle Larson “They’ve been looking at his rear spoiler all season and it won’t change this week.’’
Barry “Dr. NASCAR’’ Davis: Kyle Larson: “He’s been the best and most consistent all year. I can’t see him losing this race.’’
Mark Eckel: Martin Truex “Like “Left Turn’’ I picked Truex when the playoffs started, so I’m not changing. But it has been Larson’s year.’’