AVONDALE, Ariz. – Entering the NASCAR Cup Series championship race, the pair of Team Penske Ford Mustangs wheeled by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were viewed as potential favorites for the title.
After all, Logano had won the tour’s first visit to Phoenix Raceway back in March and Keselowski won two visits to tracks one mile in length or shorter during the second half of the Cup Series season.
However, Sunday’s Season Finale 500 was a case of both drivers lacking just a little too much.
Though Keselowski got to second in the closing stages of the 312-lap race at Phoenix, he ran out of laps to run down eventual race winner and champion Chase Elliott, who took the checkered flag in front by 2.740 seconds in the end despite Keselowski making up nearly a second on the race track.
It was a case of “too little, too late,” for the 36-year-old, after he led 16 laps and stone the win in the second stage from Elliott with a last-corner pass on Sunday.
“I would have liked to have had one of those late-race yellows, like we saw in the Truck and Xfinity race,” Keselowski noted. “I thought we were pretty good there; we just didn’t have the track position to make it show. I thought we had a shot at the end of the second stage and we just couldn’t keep it up in a spot where we could have a [stronger] lead.
“I’m really proud of the speed we had. It was a solid day; I just wish we’d had one more spot.”
Keselowski ended the year with four wins and a second-place ranking in the final point standings, his best season result since he won his only NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2012.
Keselowski’s season didn’t truly ignite until after the sport returned from the COVID-19 break in May. He won his first race during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend, then added wins at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway during the regular season.
His fourth win of the year came at Richmond (Va.) Raceway during the first round of the playoffs, propelling him through a sub-par second round before three-straight top-six finishes secured Keselowski’s place among the Championship 4.
While Sunday’s race didn’t end how he’d hoped, it did give Keselowski optimism about the strength of Team Penske going into the new season.
“I think it was one of those scenarios where everybody got better,” he explained. “If you look at last year, we didn’t have either of the cars in the top four here, except we were at Homestead last year but in the final race. Now we had two cars in it.
“I think if you look at Ryan Blaney, he had one of his best years ever; it was interesting how that worked out,” Keselowski added. “I think all three [teams] got better, and for us with the Discount Tire Ford, we had a great season.”
Meanwhile, Logano was the driver who took the fight to Elliott for most of the day, leading the second-most laps in the race with 125 and cycling out to the lead after the final round of green-flag pit stops.
However, once he was run down and passed by Elliott with 43 to go, Logano had “nothing left to fight with” and eventually faded to third place, both in the race and the season standings.
The Middletown, Conn., native and 2018 Cup champion chalked up his championship miss to “not enough pace” when it mattered most.
“We just didn’t have the speed at the right time,” Logano said. “Our Shell‑Pennzoil Mustang was really fast and no one really did anything wrong. Our pit crew was on it. Our strategy got us out front there at the end. The 9 (Elliott) seemed like he really lit off pretty well there; that last run [he] was able to go really fast. And we got another vibration towards the end of the run and lost the turn. I was still a little free.
“We were close; everyone executed and did their job, and that’s what we should be most proud of,” Logano added. “If you look at how far we’ve come from the beginning of the season to now as a team, we have a lot to be proud of. It stings not winning; I’m not going to lie. It hurts.
“At the same time, though, we’re stronger because we went through all this.”
Logano earned three victories during the season, with two coming prior to the COVID-19 break at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway and Phoenix, and his third occurring at Kansas Speedway in October and locking him into the Championship 4.
Considering both Logano and Keselowski went through 2020 with new crew chiefs, after a team-wide swap of the faces atop the Team Penske pit boxes, both drivers are expecting greater success in 2021.
“For a new year, a new driver‑crew chief pairing with the team, going through with the COVID protocols and not being able to be around each other and not having practice … like I said, to see where we’ve come from, there’s a lot to be proud of,” said Logano. “We’ve got to look at the positives. I’m always a silver linings person. It’s hard to do right now, but I will say we’ve grown a lot, and it makes me really excited for 2021.
“You don’t lose in these situations,” Logano continued. “You either win or get stronger, and unfortunately we are the stronger ones today and we’ll get stronger, but we will be better for next year.”
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is scheduled to begin Feb. 14 with the 63rd Daytona 500.