Four more NASCAR Cup drivers will be chopped from playoff contention following Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway’s flat 1.022-mile layout near Phoenix. It’s the final race of the Round of 8 and there are two Championship 4 berths to be had for next week’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have already qualified as two of the Championship 4 by virtue of winning the first two races in this round. Six drivers are fighting for the final spots with only five having a legitimate mathematical chance with only 25 points of separation between the third-place driver and the seventh-place driver.
To give some clarity on what 24 points of separation looks like in a race boxscore, Harvick gained 55 points by winning at Texas last week and Truex, who finished sixth, gained 31. Another example was Denny Hamlin gaining 9 points for his 28th-place finish while Joey Logano gained 39 points for his fourth-place finish.
Of course, any of the six drivers can just win at Phoenix this week and not have to worry about points. But what makes this race so entertaining every year are seeing the crew chiefs doing all the plus-minus addition to where their driver is and their competitors. Everything is all on the line for those trying to get a berth. Think of this race like the conference championship games before the Super Bowl.
Chances are that the winner of Sunday’s race will come from one of the eight drivers eligible to win the season title because 11 of the past 12 winners that active are with this group.
Here’s a look at the eight drivers odds to win the 2019 NASCAR Cup Championship, where they are in the standings, and what I think they have to do to advance.
1. Martin Truex Jr. 9-4 (4,133 points, clinched). The 2017 Cup Champion has never won at Phoenix in 27 starts, but in the March 10 race where he came away with a career-best runner-up, it was a prelude to what was to about to come the rest of the season using the new race package with engines producing 750 horsepower. In the 13 races using it so far, he has five of his series-leading seven wins.
He’s got nothing to lose this week and can coast, but something has me thinking his focus is only on winning and checking it off his flat short track things to-do list he did by winning at Richmond (twice) and Martinsville for the first time in his career.
2. Kevin Harvick 9-4 (4,113, clinched): The 2014 cup Champion owns just about every track record at Phoenix, beginning with nine wins, seven of them coming in the last 14 races there. There is no driver-track love affair that comes close to this over the past seven years.
The thing to like about him this week is winning with this week’s race package at New Hampshire’s 1-mile flat layout in late July. I lump Phoenix, Richmond and New Hampshire data together as the same because of all being shorter flat tracks. If a driver does well on one, they almost always do well on the others. Harvick’s 2006 season is the perfect example because he won on all three of the track using similar set-ups and in a few races the same exact car, which included a sweep of Phoenix. Four of his five wins that season was on these type of tracks.
3. Kyle Busch 7-2 (4,113, +22 above 5th place). The 2015 Cup Champion hasn’t won since June 10 at Pocono, but he comes in having won the last two races at Phoenix, a huge accomplishment considering he kept Harvick from winning.
In the last race run on this type of track, the Las Vegan led the most at Richmond in late September and finished second. He’ll be trying to stay out of trouble and get enough points to advance, but he’ll know right away in practice how good his car is and if he feels it’s good enough to win, he won’t be able to resist himself to end his long winless streak.
4. Joey Logano 6-1 (4,111, +20 above 5th place). The 2018 Cup Champion is in a similar situation as Busch except for Logano not being as good with this week’s race package compared to how well he’s run with the 550 horsepower package which he used to win both his races this season. His lone Phoenix win in 2016 is also his last top-five there. He was 37th in this race last season and in the 2017 spring race, he finished 31st. Both of those poor finishes were due to accidents. He looks to be the driver most likely to be passed in points by one of the next three in line.
5. Denny Hamlin 12-1 (4,091, -20 below cutoff). He doesn’t have to win to advance, but winning should be his goal so he doesn’t have to root for his competitors to have a poor finish. He has 12 top-fives at Phoenix over his career, including a 2012 win. Flat tracks have always been his best type, but the main reason to support him this week is 11 top-five finishes in the 13 races using this week’s race package.
6. Ryan Blaney 40-1 (4,088, -23 below cutoff). Just like Hamlin, he’s been very consistent with this race package, unlike his Penske teammate Logano. He had the best finish of his Cup career at Phoenix in March when he started from the pole, led 98 laps, and finished third.
7. Kyle Larson 25-1 (4,088, -23 below cutoff). He’s been strong at Phoenix in his last starts with four finishes of sixth or better. His team got better with this week’s race package as the season has gone on which includes a win at Dover last month, his only win this season. He needs for a lot to happen to advance, but his odds are low at 25-1 just because if he does make the Championship 4 he might be favored to win due to his success at Homestead.
8. Chase Elliott 60-1 (4,033, -88 below cutoff). He’s still alive, but the only way for him to race for a title this season is by winning on Sunday. The good news is that two of his three wins this have come using this week’s race package and they’ve come within the last six races using it. He was 14th at Phoenix in the spring and has a 10th-place average finish there in seven Cup starts.