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NASCAR’s Playoffs take on a role similar to what conference championship games do in other sports. Half the field of eight contenders will be eliminated Sunday night at Phoenix, the last stop in the Round of 8.

Three drivers, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have already qualified to advance and one spot is left. Brad Keselowski is sitting in fourth place and has a 19-point lead over Denny Hamlin, a 22-point edge over Ryan Blaney and a 49-point advantage over Chase Elliott.

Jimmie Johnson has 28 starts at Phoenix and has an incredible 8.9 average finish, which includes four wins and 990 laps led. The seven-time champ is 51 points behind the fourth-place transfer position and is going to have to win to advance to the Championship 4 next week at Homestead. He was ninth in the March race and something to really consider is his last win was in 2009; a span of 15 races have passed since then. From 2007-2009, Johnson went on a run of winning four of five Phoenix races. Remember, he’s history in the making and worth rooting for.

The dominant force at Phoenix over the past 14 years has been Chevrolet, a run started in 2003 by Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning two straight races (2003-04). The manufacturer has won seven of the past eight races there and 21 of the last 27.

The leader of the pack for Chevrolet has been Kevin Harvick with a track record eight wins. He’s made 29 career starts, averaged a 9.9 finish and led a track record 1,484 laps. But the Bakersfield native drives a Ford now, and in his first chance in March he was sixth and didn’t lead any laps, which is significant for him. Harvick grew up racing at Phoenix on all levels of racing. He won six of eight Phoenix races from 2012-16.

Ryan Newman won the March 19 race at Phoenix, leading only six laps. Kyle Busch finished third and led a race-high 114 laps. Chase Elliott, who has to win to advance to the Championship 4, led 106 laps that day and finished 12th. Kyle Larson finished second.

So much has happened since that race in regards to Joe Gibbs Racing becoming even more competitive. A good angle to approach in handicapping this week’s race is look at what happened in the four races at Richmond and New Hampshire this season, particularly the two recent races in September. All three tracks vary in configuration from 3/4-mile to one-mile, but for all three the balance set-up is for a flat track. A few do it much better than others.

Harvick has a fourth at Richmond in April as his only top-five among the five races on these types.

This has another look of Kyle Busch vs. Truex Jr. Because Harvick is in the Championship 4 already on the basis of his win last week at Texas, he’s not desperate for a win. I’ll bet this will be the first time since 2003 I haven’t included Harvick in my top-five prediction for Phoenix.

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