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‘Heartwarming’ reception for Phoenix as first-time championship weekend host

Sunday’s NASCAR season finale culminated with a first Cup Series title for newly crowned Chase Elliott, but Phoenix Raceway also cheered another historic first — its debut as host track for the sport’s championship weekend.

The 1-mile track in Avondale, Arizona, minted three new national series champs last weekend: Chase Elliott (Cup Series), Austin Cindric (Xfinity Series) and Sheldon Creed (Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series). The events were a generally well-received success, though the protocols necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 restricted attendance for each race of the tripleheader. Socially distanced fans sold out the limited allotment of grandstand seating, and portions of the infield and camping areas were also opened up.

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Last weekend was meant to be a showcase event for the recently renovated track, which received a $178 million face-lift that included a reconfiguration of the layout and the addition of many fan-friendly amenities. Though the limits on attendance may have dampened a bit of the race-day pop, NASCAR President Steve Phelps praised track president Julie Giese and the work of state and local leaders to create a buzz around the season-ending events.

“The facility looks fantastic. It’s just unfortunate that everyone can’t experience it,” Phelps said. “It’s a bit bittersweet, but I do think this market has responded incredibly strongly to us coming here. Visually when you go around the city, you know that our championship is here. That’s heartwarming.”

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Phoenix was installed as the 2020 season’s closer after an 18-year run at Homestead-Miami Speedway in south Florida. The shift moved the final weekend from an intermediate-sized circuit to a venue with a short-track feel to it. “In general, I think NASCAR was built on the smaller tracks and the championship being awarded on them feels right to me,” said Brad Keselowski, who wrapped the year as the Cup Series runner-up.

Phoenix appears in the same time slot on the 2021 schedule, a move that was applauded by other members of this year’s Championship 4, though some suggested a rotation system for the final weekend.

NASCAR’s All-Star Race has slowly begun to break away from its long-standing home at Charlotte Motor Speedway, being run at Bristol last summer and shifting to Texas next year. Why not the championship?

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“I think that I’m good with it moving around. I’m good with it staying here for a little bit,” said Denny Hamlin, a two-time winner at Phoenix. “I certainly think that Phoenix Raceway invested money into the fan experience, and any track that does that deserves to have a big race. To me, facilities is a big hitter in my mind for the fan experience, and they invested money in it.

“The city is a sports town. A lot of stuff goes on in this city beyond racing, other sports. We always have had great crowds here no matter what’s gone on, whether we’ve raced two races a year here. If it was a playoff race or not, it was a packed crowd. This place deserves the race that it got.”