PHOENIX — The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship comes down to two teams: Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
But rather than viewing it as one powerhouse team going against another, three of the Championship 4 contenders place the focus squarely on a battle between individual drivers.
Kyle Larson (No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet), Chase Elliott (No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet), Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) and their respective individual teams will compete for the title in Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC).
“It’s us versus them three,” said Truex, who’s racing for his second Cup title following his 2017 crown. “Obviously, we want Joe Gibbs Racing to win it, but our focus is not on (Denny Hamlin and) the 11 car. Our focus is on us. It’s every man for himself.”
Elliott, the only other champion of the final four, is racing to defend his title, while Hamlin and Larson are each competing for their first.
All four teams are “pretty equal,” Larson said. And he doesn’t consider any of the final four a favorite, even though his series-high nine wins this season are more than the other three combined. Truex has four checkered flags, and Hamlin and Elliott have two apiece.
In preparation for the season finale, he said he’s spent more time working Elliott this week than he has all year, as team owner Rick Hendrick has a 50 percent chance to win a Cup-leading 14th championship.
“I definitely think it’s us versus the other three guys, for sure,” Larson said. “Obviously if I can’t win, I want to Chase to win. But I’m going to race Chase just as hard as I’m going to race Denny and Martin.”
Along with pre-race prep, teams and teammates will often work together on the track as well throughout NASCAR’s 36-race season, whether that’s drafting at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway or pushing each other on restarts and providing small advantages where they can.
In addition to Truex and Larson, Elliott said it’s his respective No. 9 Chevrolet against the other cars. Hamlin was the outlier, saying he “certainly” feels it’s a matchup between two perennial title-contending teams in Gibbs and Hendrick. But once the green flag flies, teamwork will be nonexistent, Hamlin said.
“I’m not sure that anyone’s really going to be working as teammates,” Hamlin said.
“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. I think that’s going to be the bigger factor in what decides it. Is this going to come down to a green-white-checkered finish or a long run at the end?”
And as respect for each other during races has been a popular topic particularly throughout the playoffs, the Championship 4 drivers hold each other in high regard.
Truex described his fellow title contenders as “three of the best guys out there to be racing with.”
“I feel like it’s a good group,” Elliott added. “I think we can all go race really hard and put on a good race and race clean and all the things. I don’t have anything bad to say about anybody.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASCAR championship race: Team loyalty takes backseat for contenders