Sean Gardner | Sean Gardner

Championship 4 split between two organizations, but still ‘us versus the other three’

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Respect is not lacking among the Championship 4 teams.

During Thursday’s Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center, there was no trash talking – at least not about any of the title-eligible drivers (sorry, Alex Bowman). Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott had nothing negative to say about Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. And vice versa.

And yet somehow, despite the obvious teammate pairings, the competitive spirit remains at an all-time high.

“I definitely think it’s us versus the other three guys, for sure,” Larson said. “Obviously if I can’t win, I want Chase to win. But I’m going to race Chase just as hard as I’m going to race Denny and Martin.”

PHOENIX: Betting odds | Weekend schedule | Paint schemes

Sunday’s showdown at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App/Peacock, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a straight-up battle for the title. Whichever Championship 4 driver posts the best result wins the whole shebang. Technically, he doesn’t even need to finish in first place.

Since the NASCAR Playoffs’ elimination format was installed in 2014, though, the season-finale winner has always been a championship contender. For that reason, all four of the title hopefuls are looking at Phoenix as a must-win situation.

This season, Larson boasts the most wins with nine. Truex owns four. Hamlin and Elliott each hold two.

“We haven’t won as many races as they have,” Hamlin said. “The championship is decided on this race track, not any of the others.”

At Phoenix, Hamlin leads the way with two career victories in Cup. Elliott and Truex have one apiece. Larson has weathered a drought in the desert.

The 750-horsepower package will be in play Sunday. Excluding dirt and road-course events – because Phoenix is a 1-mile asphalt oval – there have been 11 instances where this package has been used in 2021. Truex won a series-best four of those. Larson received the nod twice, Hamlin once. Elliott did not; albeit a very different layout and therefore a technicality, both his wins did come on road courses with this package.

“If it doesn’t make us go faster, I’m not concerned about it,” Elliott said. “We have a motivation amongst our team to go get the job done, and that’s where our focus is.”

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Hendrick Motorsports boast the most championships (13 compared to Joe Gibbs Racing’s five), but the current field is evenly split when it comes to titleholders.

Elliott is the defending champion. Truex is the 2017 champion. Neither Hamlin nor Larson has captured a Bill France Cup Trophy.

A second for Elliott or Truex would mean just as much as a first, regardless of alliances.

“Sunday morning, that’s it, it’s over,” Truex said. “They’ll talk pit strategies during the race or whatever is happening like they always do, I would say, but on the race track, we’re racing. There’s no teamwork. We’re not helping each other. We’re racing to win.

“I’m sure the other team is the same way. That’s just the way sport is. It’s every man for themselves once Sunday rolls around.”

WHAT THEY SAID: CHAMPIONSHIP 4

Chase Elliott: “I feel like it’s a good group. I think we can all go race really hard and put on a good race and race clean and all the things. Yeah, I don’t have anything bad to say about anybody.”

Kyle Larson: “I can’t speak on how they feel about me. I mean, I respect the heck out of the three competitors and their talents. I’m really looking forward to battling each of them. I feel like it’s the best four teams that are in the final four.”

Denny Hamlin: “They’re all going to be fast. The HMS guys, pit crews have been really, really fast this year. JGR has been really good on the shorter tracks. It all kind of weighs out to however the race plays out.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “A high level of respect from me towards all those guys. Chase has been a champion already, even as young as he is. Larson, amazing driver, obviously what he’s done this season. And then Denny, I’ve raced with him since 2003. I’ve run a lot of laps with these guys, never had any issues, raced very clean.”

STATISTICAL TEAM NOTES AMONG THE 2021 CHAMPIONSHIP 4 

Championships: Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing are tied.

2021 stats: Hendrick Motorsports leads in wins, top fives and top 10s.

Phoenix stats: Joe Gibbs Racing leads in wins, top fives and top 10s.

750-HP tracks: Joe Gibbs Racing leads in wins, top fives and top 10s.

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