Consider this week’s race at Phoenix like the NFL’s Conference Championship Game where half the teams will lose and the other half advance to the Super Bowl.
There’s only two races remaining with eight drivers trying to be one of the Championship 4 that will race at Homestead next week for the Sprint Cup title.
Jeff Gordon is the only driver to have already advanced by virtue of his Martinsville win two weeks ago. Jimmie Johnson, who isn’t one of the eight eligible drivers, played the spoiler by winning at Texas and keeping one of those automatic bids from going to a Chase driver. Brad Keselowski led 312 laps at Texas, but not the last one as Johnson’s car flew by him with six laps to go.
Before handicapping this week’s race at Phoenix, you need to think about what happened on the smaller flat tracks at Richmond, New Hampshire and of course Phoenix back in March. The trends hold true yearly – if a driver does well on one, they do well on all three.
The three tracks aren’t configured the same and are all from ¾-mile to a mile in distance, but the set-up requirements are similar. You could just say forget all the notes and results sheets and go with Kevin Harvick.
Not a bad strategy considering he’s won the past four races at Phoenix. It’s an amazing run we don’t see in today’s NASCAR with the ever-changing cars. Harvick hasn’t just had mandated NASCAR car changes over the past couple years, he’s actually switched teams as well. He’s won at Phoenix four times with Richard Childress Racing and a current streak of three with Stewart Haas Racing It’s hard to bet against him, but it’s also difficult to take only 5-to-2 odds to win a NASCAR race, even as great as Harvick has been.
Last season Harvick had the pressure of having to win to advance and wound up winning at Homestead for the championship the following week as well. He’s not in quite as rough a situation, but can clinch by finishing second or better no matter what anyone else does or he lead the most laps and finish fourth.
Gordon is the only driver really safe this week. Kyle Busch has almost the same situation as Harvick to advance and everyone else is kind of in that boat where they only control their own destiny by winning.
The good news for the rest of the Chase field is that Matt Kenseth will be serving the last of his two-race suspension for his role in ending Joey Logano’s day at Martinsville. Kenseth has only one win at Phoenix, but his team was dialed in with Richmond and New Hampshire wins in September – the last two races on these type of tracks.
With Kenseth out of the mix, it gives several other drivers a better chance to beat Harvick. Watch for Kenseth’s replacement Erik Jones who might take the sweet set-up to a strong finish.
Kyle Busch has a 2005 Phoenix win to his credit, but missed the spring race with a leg injury. He was strong at New Hampshire in July with a win. That‘s three straight wins on these type of tracks by Joe Gibbs Racing. Carl Edwards is a two-time Phoenix winner and finished fifth in the last New Hampshire race. He’s only 7-points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the fourth and final Championship 4 position.
Johnson could play spoiler again and make things real interesting for the Chase. JJ has four Phoenix wins and a track best 7.8 average finish in 24 starts. Gordon has won at Phoenix twice and has a 10.9 average finish in 33 starts.
Realistically, Harvick is still the man. He’s got the pressure on him to win as defending champion and those four straight Phoenix victories.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].