Can-Am 500 Preview
November 7, 2017
By Micah Roberts
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There's only one spot remaining for next weeks championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and we'll find out Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway who that driver is as we close out the Round of 8 and eliminate four drivers.
Think of NASCAR's Playoffs this week like a conference championship game, or a Game 7, in other sports where half the contenders say bye-bye. Three drivers, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. have already qualified to advance to next weeks Championship 4. Brad Keselowski is sitting in fourth-place and has a 19-point lead over Denny Hamlin, a 22-point lead over Ryan Blaney and a 49-point lead over Chase Elliott.
“You want to try to win the race," said Elliott who has a 9.7 average finish in three Phoenix starts. "The guy who wins that race is probably going to go on, we saw that last year. We weren’t really in the hunt there last year to win the race. We weren’t in the playoffs anymore at that point, so all those guys, you try to respect them as much as you can when you are not involved in it, but at the same time you want to win. Fine line you have to walk there, but just try to get the victory if you can to punch your ticket.”
Hamlin doesn't have to win to get in like Elliott does, but he's going to need some help with someone like Keselowski having trouble or he just has to win to get the automatic berth.
"We just need to keep digging to give ourselves a shot at a win this weekend," said Hamlin who won at Phoenix in 2012. "That’s the way we’re going to pull this thing off. We’ve been up front to contend for a win at the end of these past two races, and that’s our plan again at Phoenix.”
Jimmie Johnson has 28 starts at Phoenix and has an incredible 8.9 average finish, which includes four wins and 990 laps led. The seven-time champ is 51 points behind the fourth-place transfer position and is going to have to win to advance to the Championship 4 next week at Homestead. He was ninth in the March race and something to really consider is that his last win was in 2009, a span of 15 races have passed since then. From 2007-2009, Johnson went on a run of winning four of five Phoenix races. Remember, he's history in the making and worth rooting for. But maybe not actually betting on him, at least not odds to win.
"I know we’re building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix," Johnson said. "We’ll go there and fight as hard as we can. One thing this team will never do is give up."
The dominant force at Phoenix over the past 14 years has been Chevrolet, a run started in 2003 by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning two straight races (2003-04). The manufacturer has won seven of the past eight races there and 21 of the past 27.
The leader of the pack for Chevrolet has been Kevin Harvick with a track record eight wins. He's made 29 career starts, averaged a 9.9 finish and led track record 1,484 laps. But the Bakersfield native drives a Ford now and in his first chance in it in March, he was sixth and didn't lead any laps, which is significant for him. Harvick grew up racing at Phoenix on all levels of racing. He won six of eight Phoenix races from 2012-2016.
Ryan Newman would win the March 19 race at Phoenix. He led only six laps on the day. Kyle Busch finished third and led a race-high 114 laps. Elliott, who has to win to advance to the Championship 4, led 106 laps that day and finished 12th. Kyle Larson finished second.
So much has happened since that race in regards to Joe Gibbs Racing becoming even more competitive. A good angle to approach in handicapping this weeks race is look at what happened in the four races at Richmond and New Hampshire this season, particularly the two recent races in September. All tree tracks vary in configuration from 3/4-mile to 1-mile, but the characteristic that stands out most united for all three is the balance set-up for a flat track. A few do it much better than others.
Here's what happened on those in quick format: Joey Logano won the April 30 Richmond race, but because his team bent the rules too far, the automatic berth in the playoffs for win was stripped. Matt Kenseth led the most laps and Keselowski finished second, Hamlin was third. Then Hamlin went on to win the July New Hampshire race with Truex leading a race-high 137 laps and finishing third. Larson would finish second and then on Sept. 9 at Richmond, Larson would get the win - his first not on a 2-mile track. Truex would lead 198 laps, Logano finished second and Newman third. On September 24, Kyle Busch led 187 of the 300 laps at New Hampshire and got the lobster and trophy. Only six lead changes among three drivers, yawn. Truex finished fifth and led 112 laps, Larson second leading one lap. Kenseth was third and Keselowski was fourth.
As you can see with the entire list, including what happened at Phoenix, there's a lot of the same names doing consistently well on all three tracks, and Harvick or Johnson haven't been relevant on these tracks anywhere. Harvick has a fourth at Richmond in April as his only top-five among the five races on these types.
One driver who is very relevant this week is Kyle Busch.
"We almost won that race in the spring, so I feel good about our chances again this weekend," said Busch who has finished fourth or better in his last four Phoenix starts. "From there, all the focus will be on Homestead and what we can do to win there. It’s nice to get to Homestead, but what matters is if you win it.”
Busch could park the car after starting if he wanted to, but you know he wants to win every race and I don't think he's too concerned about teammate Hamlin making the Championship 4, although Busch would probably love have a reason to race rival Keselowski hard and ruin his chances of making the Championship 4. Kyle never forgets and he's got a couple paybacks reserved for Keselowski stored away.
From the looks of it, this has another look of Kyle Busch vs. Martin Truex Jr. Because Harvick is in the Champion 4 already on the basis of his win last week at Texas, he's not desperate for a win. I'll bet this will be the first time since 2003 that I haven't included Harvick in my top-five prediction for Phoenix.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (4/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
4) #42 Kyle Larson (8/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (15/1)