Final championship spot up for grabs in Phoenix

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Five drivers. One spot. One race.

That’s what’s up for grabs this weekend from Phoenix International Raceway, as the penultimate race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the Can-Am 500, will go green this Sunday. Five drivers are fighting for one final spot into the championship four next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With that on the line, this ought to be good.

WHAT: Can-Am 500 (312 laps, 500 kilometers, stages of 75, 75 and 162 laps, respectively)

WHEN: Sunday, November 12, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 2:15 p.m. ET on NBC

WHERE: Phoenix International Raceway, one-mile asphalt oval located in Avondale, Arizona

FAVORITES: Kyle Busch (2-1), Kevin Harvick (3-1), Martin Truex Jr. (5-1) and Kyle Larson (8-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Joey Logano survived this race which went into double overtime one year ago to vault himself into the championship four in Miami. The win was his third of the season, 17th of his career and first at Phoenix. Logano, who led 58 laps on the afternoon, joined Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards as the four drivers that would compete for the title the following weekend.


THE FIELD

Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Ryan Blaney earned the Coors Light pole award for the second time this season, second time in his career and first time at Phoenix with a lap of 137.492 mph (26.098 seconds) around the one-mile circuit. He bested Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. for P1.

Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez rounded out the top 10 qualifiers, with playoff drivers Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski qualifying in 12th and 16th, respectively. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will roll off in 14th in his final start at Phoenix as well.


FIVE FOR ONE

Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson are the five drivers that will be vying for that final spot for next weekend’s season finale in Miami. Four will go home unhappy, and one will advance with a shot to make history in South Beach.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Keselowski has the best chance of the five to advance. He currently occupies the final spot, and can clinch it based on points if none of the other four win. He doesn’t have any career wins at Phoenix in his career, but has five top fives, eight top 10’s and an average finish inside the top 15. If him and his crew chief Paul Wolfe do what they usually do—finish inside the top 10 and avoid chaos and trouble—they’ll be making their first championship four appearance ever.

But Hamlin might have something to say about that. He’s 19 points behind the No. 2 in the standings right now, but has one win, 10 top fives and 14 top 10’s. Having the fifth-best average finish (10.8) of active drivers doesn’t hurt, too. For all intents and purposes, though, he’s in a must-win situation. The No. 11 team will be looking to lock themselves into the championship four for the first time since 2014, and “The Deliverminator” will look to deliver once again.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Blaney and Elliott don’t have much experience at the desert-oval, but they’ll still be looking to take prisoners on Sunday. Elliott (in a must-win situation) is still out to avenge his losses that occurred a few weeks back at Martinsville and Blaney (22 points behind Keselowski), starting from the pole, is poised to throw a wrench into a veterans championship four by adding some young spice to it. Elliott did lead 106 laps and won stage two at Phoenix in the spring, but anything less than a win (and a whole lot of help) for these two won’t be enough.

And then, of course, there’s seven-time. Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team haven’t looked like themselves throughout these playoffs. Despite four wins, 15 top fives and 20 top 10’s and a series-best driver rating of 111.0 in his career at PIR, he hasn’t finished inside the top 10 since Charlotte. A 27th-place result multiple laps down last weekend in Texas was a real eye-opener for Johnson, his team and everybody else watching on TV. This team isn’t right at the moment. And if they can’t earn a win, they’ll be missing out on a chance for title No. 8.


LOCKED IN

Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are the three drivers that won’t need to worry about a thing from green to checkered flag in the Can-Am 500, because they’re locked in.

Busch’s Martinsville triumph locked him into the championship four and Harvick’s late-race pass on Truex Jr. locked him in as well. By virtue of being enough points above fifth-place, MTJ is locked in on points as well. But they all can focus on trying to win the race to gain momentum for the season-finale and show the other three drivers that they aren’t letting up.

Harvick’s nickname is “Cactus King” for good reason. He has eight wins at Phoenix, the most ever at PIR. He also has three top fives and 18 top 10s to go along with the eight wins. Busch has one win, seven top fives and 16 top 10s at Phoenix and Truex Jr. has one top five and seven top 10s. Since all three are also favorites in Vegas, it’s safe to say the road to Victory Lane will have to go through the No. 18, No. 4 and No. 78 when it’s all said and done on Sunday.


PREDICTION

As stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane (with two-time K&N Pro Series West champion Todd Gilliland, go check it out), my gut tells me Matt “The Brat” Kenseth will come out of the shadows and win this race. He’s coming off his best performance on an intermediate track this season last weekend at Texas and is primed to spoil the playoff party. No. 20 to VL. Book it.


NOTES

  • Johnny Sauter won the Lucas Oil 150 on Friday evening. In doing so, the Championship Four for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is set.
    • The Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway will consist of
      • Johnny Sauter (GMS Racing No. 21)
      • Christopher Bell (Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 4)
      • Austin Cindric (Brad Keselowski Racing No. 19)
      • Matt Crafton (ThorSport Racing No. 88)
  • WIlliam Byron won the Ticket Galaxy 200 on Saturday afternoon. In doing so, he clinched his spot in the Championship Four, along with two of his teammates.
    • The Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway will consist of
      • William Byron (JR Motorsports No. 9)
      • Justin Allgaier (JR Motorsports No. 7)
      • Elliott Sadler (JR Motorsports No. 1)
      • Daniel Hemric (Richard Childress Racing No. 21)
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