Mash The Gas: Phoenix Preview

credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The final chance for the remaining NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase drivers to secure their spot to battle for the Sprint Cup in the season finale is this Sunday as the Phoenix International Raceway hosts the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.

Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500
Phoenix International Raceway
312 miles (312 laps)
Sunday, Nov. 15
2:30 p.m. (ET)
NBC, 2 p.m. (ET)
MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Jeff Gordon remains the only Chase driver locked into the championship battle which leaves three spots available for the remaining Chase drivers. A few of the “Chasers” find themselves in must-win scenarios to make the finals while those with point cushions are by no means comfortable as a poor showing at Phoenix by any of them would signal the end of their title hopes.

Phoenix is a one mile relatively flat oval which differs from the 1.5 mile tracks that make up the majority of the Chase races.

The NASCAR Chase Final Four will be set on Sunday at Phoenix and here are some drivers and storylines to keep an eye on…

Brad Keselowski (Dan Margetta)
I know Kevin Harvick has won the last four races at Phoenix and I’m well aware EVERYONE says he is the favorite this week. However, unlike last season, Harvick is not in a must-win situation and can still advance with a finish of third or better which leads me to who I feel is the best driver in that must-win scenario this year…Brad Keselowski. Keselowski and the #2 team have conservatively worked their way through the Chase until they were forced to charge to survive. They showed what they are capable of last week at Texas where they dominated before coming up just short at the finish. Brad Keselowski has finished in the top ten in six out of the last seven Phoenix races and the Penske cars have kept Kevin Harvick honest at Phoenix during his win streak. The one thing Keselowski needs to watch out for though is his teammate Joey Logano also must win to advance and a battle between those two could get very interesting. It’s “win or go home” for Brad Keselowski this week and when faced with similar circumstances in the past he has shown he can get the job done and he’s one to watch for on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick (John Wiedemann)
The consensus pick. Four Phoenix wins in a row puts Kevin Harvick at the top of everyone’s list. While he doesn’t need to win, you only need to look at Talladega where Denny Hamlin entered the race in second place in the Chase standings and, after multiple issues, ended the day eliminated. The pressure is on everyone and that includes Harvick. Needing a win at the end of the first segment of this year’s Chase, Harvick won at Dover. Facing elimination at the end of the second segment, Harvick found a way to stay in the Chase at Talladega. Expect no different this weekend as the current series champion will do whatever it takes to make the finals at Homestead. And that just might be dominating this weekend’s race.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Kurt Busch is another of the Chase contenders that for all intents and purposes must win to reach the Homestead championship battle and he ran strong here back in March where he finished fifth. Busch is Kevin Harvick’s teammate which means he will race with a set-up on his car similar to if not the same as Harvick. All season long, Kurt Busch has been one of the Stewart-Hass team’s strongest drivers and when faced with an all or nothing situation, he’s not afraid to put the right foot down. Recently Busch has done a better job of not letting the added pressure get to him and if he and the team can stay focused, they have a legitimate shot to compete for the championship next weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. (JW)
Martin Truex Jr. just continues to hang in there and is currently in the fourth and final spot to continue to the Championship round. Just four points behind Kyle Busch, who is in second place, and seven points ahead of Carl Edwards in fifth place, Truex is in a tough spot but he is still solidly in the mix. All that matters for Truex is to beat at least two of the following three drivers – Harvick, Kyle Busch and Edwards. If he can do that, he should be in. In the spring race Truex finished seventh after running in the top five in the middle portion of the race. Another performance like that, maybe a little better, and Truex just may find himself running for a championship at Homestead.

Kyle Busch (DM)
The Joe Gibbs Racing team has won the last three races held on track similar to Phoenix and Kyle Busch is their strongest car remaining in the Chase. Kyle Busch’s record at Phoenix is a bit spotty but he does have a small point cushion to fall back on and needs a finish of third or better to clinch a spot in the finals. One thing that should boost Busch’s confidence is the tracks at New Hampshire and Richmond are similar to Phoenix and he won earlier this year in the first race at New Hampshire while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth won at Richmond and the second New Hampshire race. Busch did not race at Phoenix earlier this year due to injuries but as the season winds down he has posted back to back top five finishes in this Chase round. Kyle Busch wants that first crack at a Sprint Cup Championship and the final step to that opportunity awaits him at Phoenix. With so much on the line, look for Kyle Busch and the #18 team to be on top of their game on Sunday.

Carl Edwards (JW)
Carl Edwards is my pick to win at Phoenix this weekend. Positioned just out of the top four, seven points behind, Edwards needs a big race this weekend. No time to look behind him, he needs to beat the three drivers in front of him, Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch and yes… Kevin Harvick. With two wins, seven top fives and twelve top tens in twenty-two races at Phoenix, Edwards knows how to get around the one mile track and now is the time to get it done. Edwards can make his first season running for Joe Gibbs Racing a championship run and conquering the field at Phoenix is the next step to get there.

Erik Jones (DM)
While not involved in the Chase, Erik Jones makes for a good long-shot story this weekend as he fills in for the suspended Matt Kenseth in the #20 car for another week. This team with Kenseth behind the wheel won the last two races held on tracks similar to Phoenix at Richmond and New Hampshire and Jones will be busy this weekend running both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series races in addition to the Cup race on Sunday. He’s listed at 30-1 odds to win and he’s shown he is capable of competing in the Sprint Cup Series. Don’t forget, Erik Jones has entered two Truck Series races at Phoenix and he won them both, so he knows how to get around the flat oval. If you’re looking for non-Chase driver spoiler this week, Erik Jones is your guy.

Joey Logano (JW)
Win and he’s in. That is Joey Logano’s only hope. To do that, Logano will need to beat Denny Hamlin, who he has had run ins with, beat Kevin Harvick, who he has had run ins with, beat Tony Stewart, who he has had run ins with… you get the picture, but I could list a lot more. Logano would also have to beat his teammate, Brad Keselowski, who is in the same hole as far as continuing in the Chase. Logano finished 8th in the spring race after qualifying 2nd. In 2014 Logano finished 4th after qualifying 2nd in the spring race and finished 6th after qualifying 4th in the fall race. Those are all really nice low numbers and show that Logano can run great at Phoenix. But he needs to win, something he has yet to do at the Phoenix track in 13 tries. It will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure as well as to see what he might do to get the victory. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before.

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