Mash The Gas: NASCAR Playoffs At Phoenix Raceway Preview

Action at the Phoenix Raceway. [Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images]

by John Wiedemann

It’s the drama before the drama at Phoenix Raceway this weekend. With three quarters of the final four drivers set to run for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, five drivers are left to battle for the final spot. The Can-Am 500 is the final race in the Round of 8 and when the checkers fly, the field will be set for the championship race.

Phoenix Raceway is a one mile oval but adds a twist with a dog-leg back straight that allows drivers to dive low and try to set up a pass into turn three. Being in Arizona, the track can still get hot and sticky in November and the odd shaped oval can be a challenge to the drivers.

This is it for five drivers looking to grab one spot in the championship race. Winning the race would get them in, otherwise it will be a points race. If it comes down to points, stage one and two finishes will be vital in the effort to move forward. Also, at 312 miles, the laps will fly by quickly and track position will be vitally important. Pit calls and quick pit stops will probably be more likely to gain or lose positions than the racing on the track. Mistakes on pit lane will probably doom a team as there will not be time to recover.

With the intensity turned up, here is a look at the Round of 8 drivers.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr
They are in. Kyle Busch with his win at Martinsville and Kevin Harvick with his win at Texas have automatically secured their spots in the final four. Martin Truex Jr. is in the final with his points total, something that has been predicted since somewhere around the middle of the season. Truex and the Furniture Row team focused on playoff points this season and that strategy has paid off as they do not have to worry this weekend, they are in.

Brad Keselowski (19 points above cutoff, -10 from last week)
With Kevin Harvick’s win at Texas last weekend, he vaulted over Keselowski to gain a berth in the playoffs and drop Keselowski into the fourth and “bubble” position in the standings. Keselowski also lost ten points in his gap over fifth down to 19 points ahead of Denny Hamlin. Like the others, Keselowski has to perform in the stage endings and pick up points. If one of the four drivers below him wins, Keselowski is out. Otherwise he needs to gain points in the stages, and he just needs to finish well which will make that point differential hard for Hamlin or Ryan Blaney to overcome.

Denny Hamlin (19 points below cutoff, -11) and Ryan Blaney (22 points below cutoff, -16)
Kevin Harvick’s win also made Denny Hamlin’s life more difficult. Hamlin was close in points to Harvick, but now Brad Keselowski is his target, 19 points ahead. Hamlin has to look out below as Ryan Blaney is only three points behind. It is the same story for both Hamlin and Blaney, either win or get as many points as possible and hope that Keselowski falters. Both drivers have had up and down seasons as well as the playoff races so far. Now it is time to go , get to the front and stay there. Hamlin has been in this position before and made it to the final. Blaney hasn’t. My pick – Denny Hamlin will be the final driver to make the Championship 4.

Chase Elliott (49 points below cutoff, -23) and Jimmie Johnson (51 points below cutoff, -48)
The Hendrick Motorsport teammates Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson basically need to win to make the championship round. Almost a race amount of points behind Brad Keselowski in fourth, both drivers are still 20 plus points behind the other two drivers they would need to out point. Unless there is a crash in stage one that takes out Keselowski, Hamlin and Blaney, these guys are looking for the checkered flag. That being said, the youngster among the teammates probably has a better shot at the win. Chase Elliott had the win taken away from him in Martinsville but otherwise has excelled in the playoffs. Great finishes, just a position away from the win, have been the norm for Elliott. Johnson and the #48 team on the other hand has not been the championship contenders they have been in the past. They are a long shot but would not surprise me if they came up with a winning run, I just don’t think this is their year.

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