Can-Am 500 marks the end of third round and last chance for many drivers

Can-Am 500 marks the end of third round and last chance for many drivers

November 07, 2018 3:00 AM
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Let’s call Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix the semi-finals of NASCAR’s Playoffs.

It’s the final race of the third round and two spots remain open for six of the championship-eligible drivers that have yet to qualify for the Nov. 18 Championship 4 Race at Homestead. Joey Logano is locked in by virtue of an automatic berth by winning at Martinsville two weeks ago and Kevin Harvick is locked in by winning at Texas Sunday.

Among the six other drivers looking to advance, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have an edge in points with each being at least 25-points ahead of fifth-place Kurt Busch. To give an example of how small a 25-point lead is, consider Harvick gained 53-points for his March 11 win at Phoenix in NASCAR’s first visit this season during its west coast swing. Rookie William Byron gained 25-points for his 12-place finish. So Kyle Busch and Truex appear to have a comfortable lead, but they really don’t. And if Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola or Clint Bowyer win Sunday, they’ll automatically qualify and either Kyle or Truex will be chopped.

While the Playoff standings have some impact in handicapping this race, the main criteria should still begin with handicapping the type of track. In the case of Phoenix’s flat 1-mile layout, we can group its results in the same category with the two races at Richmond’s flat 3/4-mile layout and New Hampshire’s flat 1-mile layout. All three configurations are drastically different, but between the distance and lack of banking, the results have been almost identical in all four races on those ovals this season. If a driver does well on one of these tracks, they do just as good on the other.

This isn’t new. It’s been happening ever since Cup racing began at Phoenix in 1988. Car chiefs get that winning balance set-up and stick with it, and sometimes use the exact same chassis for all three tracks during a season. Chances are pretty good that Harvick will be using the same chassis he won with in March.

So let’s review the four races on these tracks with more emphasis given to the Sept. 22 Richmond race just because it’s most recent. Three drivers finished in the top-five of all four races and one driver finished in the top-five of three of the four races and another driver finished in the top-five in the last two races on them.

Check it out, Harvick won at Phoenix and New Hampshire, finished fifth at Richmond in April and was runner-up there seven weeks ago and he led laps in all of them. Kyle Busch took the checkers at both Richmond races, was runner-up at Phoenix while also leading the most laps and was also runner-up at New Hampshire. That’s an insane 1.5 average finish between the four races. 

The other driver with all top-fives is Chase Elliott, and he’s perhaps the most interesting look to get in the Championship 4 Race. He was third at Phoenix, runner-up at Richmond, fifth at New Hampshire and fourth in the last Richmond race. His 6.8 average finish between five Phoenix starts in the best among all active drivers. Kyle Busch and Harvick have proven to be better on these tracks this season, but Elliott is certainly knocking on the door. And man, NASCAR sure would love to have royalty in its Championship 4 Race. Not that NASCAR can do anything special but wish for Elliott to win, but I’m on board with wishing as well.

The last two races on these tracks have had the exact same top-five finishers. It’s uncanny. The fifth driver of the group has been Harvick’s teammate Almirola who was third at New Hampshire and fifth at Richmond, leading laps in both. He’s going to fetch some nice odds and offers some value at 20-to-1 or higher.