This year’s Championship 4 competitors might be the most evenly matched grouping in the 10th year of the current format. The practice results from Friday Night might not be the most accurate indicator of which drivers will compete for the win. Or maybe it will be with the four Championship 4 drivers being competitive throughout the weekend. Hendrick Motorsports won qualifying with William Byron claiming his first pole at Phoenix. Unfortunately, you won’t see Kyle Larson in my fantasy lineup as I’m out of uses, but I’d highly recommend putting him in your lineup.
Dustin Albino’s race-day lineup:
Starter 1: William Byron
Starter 2: Ryan Blaney
Starter 3: Christopher Bell
Starter 4: Denny Hamlin
Starter 5: Kevin Harvick
Garage pick: Ross Chastain
NEXT IN LINE: Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Bubba Wallace, Kyle Busch
RISING: With how Truex’s postseason has gone, I almost don’t dare to put his name here. The No. 19 car qualified on the front row for the third straight week. That hasn’t panned out well the last two weeks, but the No. 19 car has cracked the top two in the finishing order in two of the last five Phoenix races. His Next Gen numbers are worrisome, with a best finish of 15th.
The second half of the 2023 season was much better for Erik Jones than the first half. That continued in the final weekend of the season, as the famed No. 43 car earned its best starting position of the season on Saturday. Jones led 14 laps in the spring Phoenix race before dropping to 21st in the final rundown.
FALLING: Let’s pair Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney together since they are battling each other in the Championship 4 race. What a difference a day makes. Honestly, I don’t think there’s much of a concern because both drivers led long-run averages. Bell had the best five- and 10-lap average. Blaney, meanwhile, was the best on 15- and 20-lap runs. They might not have the fire-off speed, which could be concerning, as Bell qualified 13th and Blaney ranked 15th. Track position is critical at Phoenix, but I’d have both drivers available in your lineup.
Joey Logano is the only driver to drop from my lineup from earlier this week. The No. 22 car looked solid on single-lap speed in practice but fell off considerably on the long run. He qualified 17th, while the driver I replaced him with, Ross Chastain, was positioned in the top 10 in most categories this weekend.
Kyle Larson vs. Ryan Blaney
This is tough because Blaney had an incredible long-run pace during Friday’s practice session. With the 50-minute session at night, the track temperature was much cooler than race conditions. Larson said he was confused after practice but qualified better than he thought he would. Blaney might be the favorite for many, but Larson has been here before and won a championship. He’s the pick.
Christopher Bell vs. William Byron
It was the same thing as above, but Bell and Byron were more evenly matched during the long run in practice, ranking second and third on 15-lap averages. Byron gets the nod, however, because he won his fourth pole of the season. Bell will likely find his way to the front during the race, but I’m sticking with Byron as my championship pick.
Denny Hamlin vs. Joey Logano
Logano dominated the championship race at Phoenix last season from the pole, but the No. 22 team doesn’t have that kind of speed this weekend – nor has it had that speed during the 2023 season period. Hamlin qualified sixth and has solid Phoenix numbers himself. Sticking with the No. 11 car will edge Logano this weekend.
Tyler Reddick vs. Kevin Harvick
Rodney Childers has given Harvick one final hot rod to conclude his career. The No. 4 car was quickest in Group A of qualifying and was fourth on 10-lap averages. Reddick made the final round of qualifying for the first time in his career at Phoenix, but I’d highly lean in favor of the No. 4 team. Harvick was positioned to win the spring race until a late caution flew.