5 Drivers for 1 Spot: The Battle at Phoenix
By Matteo Marcheschi
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have won the two races in the Round of Eight so far, cementing their positions in the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. has locked himself into that group by points. That means only one spot remains to compete for the championship at Homestead, and five drivers could take it: Brad Keselowski (+19 above fifth), Denny Hamlin (-19 below fourth), Ryan Blaney (-22), Jimmie Johnson (-49), and Chase Elliott (-51).
Each driver can make the Championship Four with a win at Phoenix, and even Brad Keselowski will want a victory to guarantee himself to advance, although he has the best shot at advancing on points.
Jimmie Johnson is the strongest at Phoenix, among the five drivers. He has an average finish of just better than ninth, four wins, and 15 top five finishes in 28 starts. In the midst of his worst career year, though, with an average finish outside the top 15 and only four top five finishes (one in the playoffs), it will take a miracle from Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to take victory at Phoenix.
Chase Elliott has only three starts at Phoenix, but has shown speed there. Two of his finishes at the Arizona facility have been inside the top ten, and he led 106 laps on the way to a twelfth place finish there in the spring of this season. Elliott has never won a Cup race, so it’s now or never for the second-year driver.
Denny Hamlin has a win at Phoenix and ten top five finishes in 24 tries at the Desert Mile. He has never failed to finish a race there, and has led over 400 laps in nine different races, including his first start there in 2005. Hamlin has been very strong there, and has a pair of wins and 15 top five finishes this season, but will need a win to secure his place in the Championship Four.
Ryan Blaney, like Elliott, has only three starts at Phoenix, with an average finish just inside the top 15. Unlike Elliott, Blaney has a win this season, and has proven, if only in flashes, that he can perform under pressure. Blaney, though, hasn’t quite been consistent enough to be a confident pick to move on to the Championship Round. With only four top five finishes on the season, it’s hard to believe he can pull a win out of his hat this weekend. Anything can happen, though, and it just might.
Brad Keselowski doesn’t need to win at Phoenix, and that’s good for him, because he has the worst average finish at the track of any of the five competing for the final spot, at 14th. Keselowski is winless at the track in 16 starts there, and has top ten finishes in only half his attempts. Keselowski, though, has three wins so far this season, including one in the Round of 12 at Talladega, and has 15 top five finishes. A decent finish will get him into the Championship Four to compete for his second Cup Series championship, but he’ll need to stay out of trouble for 312 laps at Phoenix first.
These five drivers are set to battle it out for the final spot in the Championship Four this Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, then it will be on to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the final showdown to decide who wins it all on the afternoon of Sunday, November 19.