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Quicken Loans 500
It’s do or die time for seven drivers at Phoenix trying to make the final three Chase positions and go for the Sprint Cup next week at Homestead. Will Joey Logano rebound and advance by winning? Can Brad Keselowski bounce back after a disappointing finish at Texas? And can Kevin Harvick keep his momentum going and hopes alive to win a second straight title?

Sunday’s race is like the NFL Conference Championship weekend where half the teams are done and the other half advance to the Super Bowl. The stakes are high and the drama will be amazing to watch unfold, which should keep you gripped for all 312 laps.

Jeff Gordon is the only driver to have already advanced by virtue of his Martinsville win two weeks ago. Jimmie Johnson, who isn’t one of the eight eligible drivers, played the spoiler by winning at Texas and keeping one of those automatic bids from going to a Chase driver. Brad Keselowski led 312 laps at Texas, but not the last one as Johnson’s car flew by him with six laps to go.

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Before handicapping this week's race at Phoenix, you need to kind of change your thought process from the past few weeks on 1.5-mile tracks and get back to thinking about what happened on the smaller flat tracks at Richmond, New Hampshire, and of course Phoenix back in March. The trends between those three tracks hold true year after -- if a driver does well on one, they do well on all three. The three tracks aren’t configured the same and are all from ¾-mile to a mile in distance, but the set-up requirements are similar for each.

Or you could just say, ’forget all the notes and results sheets, I’m going with Kevin Harvick’ and that’s not a bad strategy either, considering he’s won the past four races at Phoenix.

Yes, he’s won the past four races at Phoenix.

It’s an amazing run we don’t see in today’s NASCAR with the ever-changing cars and for Harvick, he hasn’t just had mandated NASCAR car changes over the past couple years, he’s actually switched teams as well. He’s won at Phoenix four times with Richard Childress Racing and three times with Stewart Haas Racing -- the last three. Will he do it again? It’s hard to bet against him, but it’s also hard to take only 5/2 odds to win a NASCAR race, even as great as Harvick has been.

Last season Harvick had the pressure of having to win to advance to Homestead, and he’d go on to win at Homestead for the championship the following week as well. He’s not in quite as rough a situation as he was then, but he can clinch by finishing second or better no matter what anyone else does or lead the most laps and finish fourth.

In fact, Gordon is the only driver really safe this week. Kyle Busch has almost the same situation as Harvick to advance and everyone else is kind of in that boat where they only control their own destiny by winning.

The good news for the rest of the Chase field is that Matt Kenseth will be serving the last of his two-race suspension for his role in ending Joey Logano’s day at Martinsville. Kenseth has only one win at Phoenix, but his team was dialed in with Richmond and New Hampshire wins in September -- the last two races on these type of tracks. With Kenseth out of the mix, it gives several other drivers a better chance to beat Harvick. But watch out for Kenseth’s replacement Erik Jones at 30/1 odds who might take the sweet set-up to a strong finish.

Kyle Busch has a 2005 Phoenix win to his credit, but missed the spring race with a leg injury. He was strong at New Hampshire in July with a win. That‘s three straight wins on these type of tracks by Joe Gibbs Racing.

Carl Edwards is a two-time Phoenix winner and finished fifth in the last New Hampshire race. He’s also won four times in the Xfinity series. He’s only 7 points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the fourth and final Championship 4 position.

Johnson could play spoiler again and make things real interesting for the Chase. Johnson has four Phoenix wins and also has a track best 7.8 average finish in 24 starts.

And wouldn’t it be something to see Gordon win at Phoenix again and hog up two of the Eliminator Round wins. He’s won at Phoenix twice and has a 10.9 average finish in 33 starts.

Realistically, Harvick is still the man. He’s got the pressure on him to win, he’s the defending champion, and oh yeah, he’s won at Phoenix four straight races.

Last week I was really impressed by what he did at Texas when his gear shifter broke and he drove with one hand while holding the shifter with his other hand so it didn’t jump out of gear. And he did it so effortlessly like he was just on a Sunday drive down the parkway. It was a championship-type moment that showed why he really is the best in the series.

He brings his lunch pail to work, wears a hard hat, knows his job, works his tail off and don’t take no guff from anyone. What’s not to like about Harvick, other than his low odds this week?

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/2)
2) #41 Kurt Busch (12/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (7/1)
5) #19 Carl Edwards (12/1)

  
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