By Pat DeCola
3 Minute Read
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of four stories examining why each Championship 4 driver could win the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship. For more on Elliott and the Championship 4, tune in to the “Race for the Championship” docuseries at 10 p.m. ET Thursday on USA Network or set your DVRs.
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Chase Elliott will win the 2022 championship because …
… he’s been the guy to beat for most of 2022, and not much has changed in that department.
What’s been truly revelatory about the debut of this year’s Next Gen racer was exactly what it was designed to do – leveling the playing field a bit and increasing parity across the NASCAR Cup Series field. That’s exactly what we saw, with a near-record 19 different winners, drivers getting hot for a few races then disappearing for months at a time and non-playoff drivers coming out of nowhere to do things like sweep the entire Round of 16.
We also saw exactly one driver seem to overcome that better than anybody – Chase Elliott.
While not as dominant as his teammate Kyle Larson’s double-digit win season that resulted in last year’s title, Elliott’s 2022 campaign was as close as anybody else came to touching that with a series-best five wins – four of which came before the playoffs – en route to the Regular Season Championship. The 2020 champ has turned in the best average finish of the season as well at 12.0, a figure that’s been dragged down some by unfortunate postseason hiccups that weren’t necessarily of his own doing. Elliott’s top-10 count (20) was tied with Ross Chastain for most in the series, and his 857 laps led pace the field as well.
So why aren’t people talking about him as the slam-dunk favorite? Well, recency bias.
(And to be fair, he technically is the favorite at 2-1, according to BetMGM as of Thursday.)
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Perhaps you didn’t hear about it, but Chastain did a thing at Martinsville, a race that Christopher Bell won to get into the Championship 4 in dramatic fashion. And Joey Logano, also looking for his second title and as polished/experienced as they come, had more weeks to prep than any of the other three. This trio is garnering all the attention, and understandably so, especially given Elliott has turned in an unremarkable 16.33 average finish (lowest of the four) in the playoffs with just three top 10s, earning the fewest points of the title contenders and kind of by a not-so-small margin.
That just speaks to his relative dominance in the regular season, however. Elliott and the No. 9 team earned their way into the Championship 4 by virtue of points … because he had so many more of them from the regular season than anybody else. And when you consider that most of his playoff woes, again, have not really been self-inflicted, well, there’s not much reason to think this driver and team are any worse than they were just nine short races ago.
The Championship 4 was always the destination for this group and anything short would’ve been a disappointment. Thus, there’s no chance crew chief Alan Gustafson – who has the most career Cup wins of the four pit bosses, with 38, not to mention his four Phoenix wins – won’t have a dialed-in No. 9 Chevrolet to put in Elliott’s hands on Sunday, along with a championship-capable and well-prepared pit crew.
Elliott won his first title in his inaugural Championship 4 appearance in 2020 and is the only driver in this year’s field to make it each of the last three seasons. This stage is nothing new for him, and he’s about as unflappable under the pressure as any driver we’ve seen in years.
He’s got the best average finish at Phoenix (10.69) of the four, and sports a Kevin Harvick-like eight top 10s in 13 starts there.
If it weren’t for a string of bad luck in the playoffs, the Georgia native would be an obvious choice to become the second-youngest driver ever with multiple titles (only Jeff Gordon’s 1997 title was won at a younger age) and the first to do it for Hendrick since Jimmie Johnson in 2008.
But this is still Chase Elliott we’re talking about, and he’s more than just a popular name.
He’s as bonafide championship material as they come.