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Mash The Gas: Phoenix Preview

Action during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. [Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Final Four will be set Sunday afternoon following the Can-Am 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway and the Chase field is as tight as ever as the battle to compete for the Sprint Cup unfolds.

Can-Am 500
Phoenix International Raceway
312 miles (312 laps)
Sunday, Nov. 13
2:30 p.m. ET
NBC, 2 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards have already claimed their place in the championship fight while Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are tied for the remaining two slots entering Sunday’s Phoenix race. Matt Kenseth is just one point or position behind them and Denny Hamlin sits just two points behind on the outside looking in. Kevin Harvick (-18 points) and Kurt Busch (-32 points) have to win the race in order to advance and Harvick enters the weekend drawing the lowest Las Vegas odds ever as a favorite at 6-5. Throw in the fact that Kyle Busch, Hamlin, and Kenseth are all teammates who will have to abandon a season-long cooperation strategy as the three are battling for only two remaining spots, and the table is set for quite an exciting event.

The pressure will be intense as the final championship slots are set in the Can Am 500 from Phoenix and here are some drivers to watch…

Denny Hamlin (Dan Margetta)
Aside from Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin is the best of the remaining Chase drivers who have yet to secure a spot in the finals when it comes to the flat Phoenix oval. He has one victory here but what really stands out is his ten top five finishes in his twenty two starts. Hamlin also won earlier this year at Richmond which is a track with similar characteristics to Phoenix and traditionally he has been among the best on the flat circuits. He comes into Phoenix at 8-1 odds and is just two positions outside the cut-off mark. Hamlin will most likely have to battle his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates for a chance to compete for the Sprint Cup meaning any advantages will come from the driver’s seat as the equipment factor should be equal among all three. Hamlin’s downfall in the past has been being rattled under pressure and while he’s made strides in improving over the last few seasons, he’s on pace to set the record for pit road speeding penalties this year. Mistakes like that could kill his championship hopes on Sunday and if he wants a shot at the Sprint Cup, Denny Hamlin and the #11 team need to be on top of their game all day at Phoenix.

Kevin Harvick (John Wiedemann)
The presumptive favorite to win the race at Phoenix this weekend is Kevin Harvick, and deservedly so. Harvick has won eight times at the one mile track including the race this spring, the 2015 spring race, sweeping both races in 2014 and the Chase race in 2013. That means he has won five out of the last six races in Phoenix. What stopped him from winning this race last year? Rain… in Phoenix. He finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr in the rain shortened race. All those stats are good news for Harvick as he needs to win this weekend in order to have a shot at the Championship in Homestead, unless all his fellow Chasers crash out and finish last. Looking at the stats, he should be there for the win, but the Stewart-Haas team hasn’t been on their game lately. Either a lack of speed or showing up at tracks with the setup off have been the downfall with them not running well at Martinsville and Texas. None of that matters now and all Harvick needs to do is win. It is going to be fun to watch.

Kyle Busch(DM)
The defending Sprint Cup champion heads to the Phoenix desert barely holding on to one of the final slots available. Kyle Busch is very respectable at the Phoenix International Raceway as he owns a victory here and has five top five finishes and fourteen top ten results. With the points situation so close between Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, a top ten finish may not be good enough to advance as the only way Kyle Busch can clinch a final spot without winning is by finishing second and leading the most laps. Busch comes into Phoenix at 7-1 odds and would be a heavier favorite if not for Kevin Harvick’s dominance here over the last six races. The #18 team has been strong all season and Busch should be a driver to watch on Sunday. There is nobody better in a late race shootout than Kyle Busch and if it comes down to that on Sunday, he should be able to defend his Sprint Cup championship in Homestead.

Joey Logano (JW)
Joey Logano will start the race at Phoenix this weekend third in the Chase standings with four drivers heading to the final at Homestead. He is far from safe though. No one is safe with the exception of Jimmy Johnson and Carl Edwards. The battle for the final two spots in the Championship round is extremely tight with four drivers separated by two points. Logano has been solid but not great at Phoenix with five top ten finishes in the last six races there and he led laps in four of those events. Logano has yet to win at Phoenix and doesn’t need to in order to advance to the final round of the Chase. He does need to stay in front of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, which is no small task. And, if Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch wins the race, there will only be one spot available in the Round of 4. Just leading a lap could mean the difference between transferring the final Chase round or not. Logano was very good at Texas and I expect he will be very good at Homestead, but none of that matters if he isn’t good this weekend in Phoenix.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Phoenix hasn’t been Matt Kenseth’s best race track over the last few years and he faces a tall order on Sunday if he hopes to compete for the Sprint Cup at Homestead. He does have a victory here although it came way back in 2002, to go along with six top five finishes and eleven top tens. Kenseth should be encouraged by his run at Phoenix earlier in the season where he finished sixth as this was the place he really began to turn his season around after a rocky start. He comes into this race at 12-1 odds to win and he sits just one position outside the elimination mark. Matt Kenseth is smart enough not to beat himself and make mistakes to hurt his championship chances but with things so close between himself and his teammates he may need to be a bit more aggressive than normal if he hopes to advance. A ticked off Matt Kenseth with no room for overthinking late in the race could spell trouble for the competition and it could very well result in place in the final four with a shot at another championship.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
With all the talk about Kevin Harvick being the favorite at Phoenix this weekend, we may be missing out on another potential race winner, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson already has his ticket for the Championship round of the Chase, but he may want to be a spoiler and keep Harvick from obtaining his ticket. Although it is not completely from recent success, he hasn’t won at Phoenix since it was repaved in 2011, Johnson has the highest driver rating at Phoenix, beating out Harvick by .8. Johnson also has a better average finish of 7.8, beating Harvick’s 10.3. Johnson’s stats in 26 races at Phoenix include three poles, 4 wins, 15 top five and 19 top ten finishes. Take in to consideration that in a number of his Championship years, Johnson was just managing the second to last race of the season and not necessarily driving to win it in order to capture his championship. Keeping Harvick out of the Championship round could be a big goal for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Although the other contenders will be tough, Harvick is a guy you don’t want to battle in a one race, winner takes all scenario.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Kurt Busch has just one mission on Sunday if he wants to advance to the Homestead finale and that is simply just win the race. It’s probably the best situation for Busch as he is at his best when he can go for broke with nothing to lose. His record at Phoenix is solid with one victory, six top five finishes and sixteen top ten results. He has been a mark of consistency this season and team’s inability to close the deal and find victory lane more often has the Vegas odds makers tabbing him a 60-1 long shot on Sunday. Still, Kurt Busch is one of the best in the business when it comes to defying the odds and he won’t go down without a fight. This is the long shot team that can swing for the fences all day and their gambles could upend the strategies of the other Chasers. This has been a year of surprises in all walks of life and Kurt Busch and the #41 team may have one more up their sleeve to show us on Sunday at Phoenix.

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Dan Margetta

Dan Margetta