Can-Am 500 Preview

We've got some exciting new drama to add to Sunday's Can-Am 500 storyline at Phoenix. This is the cutoff race of the third round of NASCAR's Playoffs and when it's over we'll know who the Championship 4 drivers will be for next week's season finale at Homestead. But layered over the top of it all is alleged cheating and the severe penalties that come with it.

Kevin Harvick looked to have earned an automatic Championship 4 berth by winning Sunday at Texas, but his spoiler was proven to be too high in a post-race inspection and he had 40 driver points stripped along with the automatic berth for winning. Also, crew chief Rodney Childers was suspendedfor the final two races and fined $75,000. Wow!

No wonder those guys were so fast over the weekend. But I really do love the creative engineering effort. It's old school among so many new school things in the sport. So the deal here is Harvick's No. 4 passed the pre-race inspection, but failed post-race, as if someone changed the spoiler after the pre-race inspection? Bizzare, but perhaps a bit too harsh.

As a team, you have to find that edge somewhere, but now Harvick is fourth in points, only three points above fifth-place Kurt Busch. Only Joey Logano is locked in, so three Championship 4 spots are waiting to be claimed Sunday at Phoenix.

Among the seven drivers looking to advance, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have an edge in points with each being at least 25-points ahead of fifth-place Kurt Busch. To give an example of how small a 25-point lead is, consider Harvick gained 53-points for his March 11 win at Phoenix in NASCAR's first visit this season during its West Coast swing. Rookie William Byron gained 25-points for his 12-place finish. So Kyle Busch and Truex appear to have a comfortable lead, but they really don't. And if Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola or Clint Bowyer win Sunday, they'll automatically qualify and either Kyle, Truex, or Harvick will be chopped.

“I’d like to think our odds are pretty good," Kyle Busch said of advancing. "Obviously, anything can happen. Things didn’t go our way at Texas last weekend and we felt we had a good car, but things just didn’t fall our way after having the loose wheel. You still have to have some luck on your side and have everything kind of go your way. It’s tough to rebound, sometimes, after a difficult start to a day or, even if you have trouble later in the day, it’s really difficult to rebound and get a good finish like you need. We’d love to be able to win and automatically lock ourselves through but, if that’s not the case, then you just have to be smart and mindful of a good points day and try not to hurt yourself – just try and keep what happens to you under your own control if you can.”

While the Playoff standings have some impact in handicapping this race, the main criteria should still begin with handicapping the type of track. In the case of Phoenix's flat 1-mile layout, we can group its results in the same category with the two races at Richmond's flat 3/4-mile layout and New Hampshire's flat 1-mile layout. All three configurations are drastically different, but between the distance and lack of banking, the results have been almost identical in all four races on them this season. If a driver does well on one of these tracks, they do just as good on the other.

This isn't new. It's been happening ever since Cup racing began at Phoenix in 1988. Car chiefs get that winning balance set-up and stick with it, and sometimes use the exact same chassis for all three tracks during a season. Chances are pretty good that Harvick will be using the same chassis he won with in March.

So let's review the four races on these tracks with more emphasis given to the Spet. 22 Richmond race just because it's most recent. Three drivers finished in the top-five of all four races and one driver finished in the top-five of three of the four races and another driver finished in the top-five in the last two races on them.

Check it out, Harvick won at Phoenix and New Hampshire, finished fifth at Richmond in April and was runner-up there seven weeks ago and he led laps in all of them. Kyle Busch took the checkers at both Richmond races, was runner-up at Phoenix while also leading the most laps and was also runner-up at New Hampshire. That's an insane 1.5 average finish for Busch between the four races.

The other driver with all top-fives is Chase Elliott, and he's perhaps the most interesting look to get in the Championship 4 Race. He was third at Phoenix, runner-up at Richmond, fifth at New Hampshire and fourth in the last Richmond race. His 6.8 average finish between five Phoenix starts in the best among all active drivers. Kyle Busch and Harvick have proven to be better on these tracks this season, but Elliott is certainly knocking on the door and he knows he needs to win to advance.

“The No. 9 team and I are looking forward to heading to Phoenix this weekend," said Elliott. "We have to win this week so we are going to go to work and try to get it done. I feel good about Phoenix – we’ve run pretty good there in the past. I think it has actually been one of my more consistent tracks.”

Eliott's crew chief Alan Gustafson elaborated further on the need to win this week.

“We are trying to win. Our outlook hasn’t changed," said Gustafson. "Phoenix is a great place that we have had some success at and it’s a fun place to race. I feel like we will stack up a little better to the competition there than last week. We had a strong run in the spring, obviously, that doesn’t mean anything going back, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. We are going to do everything we can, I can promise you that.”

Yes, I love the team objective. Win! All-in! And man, NASCAR sure would love to have NASCAR royalty in its Championship 4 Race. Not that NASCAR can do anything special but wish for Elliott to win, but I'm on board with wishing as well. I'm also in on a wager for him to win.

Truex finished third in the last Richmond race and led a race-high 163 laps. Before that, he was fourth at New Hampshire leading 83 laps and fifth at Phoenix. His only non-top-five on these tracks was 14th in the first Richmond race, but he led a race-high 121 laps. A top-five from him again this week seems like a high probability to happen again. It's amazing how close he is to winning back-to-back championships despite so many errors in the playoffs.

“No doubt, we’ve had too many unforced errors,” said Truex. “That needs to stop and hopefully it will be this weekend when it does. I feel good about where we’re at going into Phoenix. I am also well aware there are a number of different scenarios that could help us or hurt us. Heck, you could have a good day in Phoenix and not make the final four, and on the other hand, you could have a bad day and still make the final four.

“It’s confusing and complicated and what we need to do is just worry about ourselves, not make any stupid mistakes, be prepared for different situations and try to get every possible point in our No. 78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota.”

The last two races on these tracks have had the exact same top-five finishers. It's uncanny. The fifth driver of the group has been Harvick's teammate Almirola who was third at New Hampshire and fifth at Richmond, leading laps in both. He's going to fetch some nice odds and offers some value at 20/1 or higher.

Now before you go running to the bet windows at your favorite sports book, or where you've shopped for the best odds on Almirola and Elliott, I think you should know some key historical information regarding Harvick.

He is the short 8/5 favorite (Bet $100 to win $160) this week at Phoenix because he's the best driver in track history with nine wins and 1,522 laps led in 31 career Cup starts. To put his achievements into context, the second-most wins at Phoenix is four from Jimmie Johnson. Harvick has won seven of the past 12 Phoenix races. So yes, other drivers are going to be offered nice odds because Harvick is such a massive favorite. Now Harvick almost has to win, he's pissed, and he's conveniently at his best track.

Also, this will be the first race on the new ISM Raceway layout. Kurt Busch had some thoughts on it.

“It’s pretty wild how much Phoenix has changed over the years," said Busch. "The dogleg used to be open and the wall was kind of open. They closed that off. Then they put a tunnel in turn four and the grandstand addition in turn two. Now they’ve upgraded the place and made it more fan friendly. It’ll be exciting to see it.”

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #9 Chase Elliott (8/1)
2) #10 Aric Almirola (25/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/5)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (4/1)