Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Great anticipation and high drama characterize Sunday’s all-important Can-Am 500 at the newly-renovated ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
Three of the final four Playoff positions are still up for grabs as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series breaks in the new-look one-mile oval that has historically produced all the excitement you’d expect for such an important championship set-up.
Only Team Penske’s Joey Logano has secured a position in the Championship 4 that will ultimately vie for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18.
A major penalty this week for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team negated Kevin Harvick’s win at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend in counting toward the championship race eligibility. And a 40-point penalty means the nine-time ISM Raceway winner goes from an automatic championship berth to falling to fourth place in the standings – a mere three points up on fifth place Kurt Busch.
Regular season champion Kyle Busch leads the standings by three points over defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr.. Harvick is next – 22 points below Truex and three ahead of Kurt Busch. Chase Elliott (-17 points), Aric Almirola (-35) and Clint Bowyer (-51) round out the drivers still championship eligible.
A victory by any of those seven drivers is an automatic ticket to the Homestead finale. The two highest ranked drivers in the points standings will take that third and fourth spot. If no one among the championship eight wins, then the championship standings will determine three of the four drivers advancing to Homestead.
Traditionally, the Phoenix oval has been Harvick’s playground. He has nine Cup victories there, including one just this spring. He is the last driver to sweep a season at Phoenix, doing so in 2014 – the year he won the Cup championship.
The track’s reconfiguration – which debuts this weekend – could be the ultimate wild card, however. In addition to new fan amenities, the track itself has a new look. The start/finish line is now located just beyond what used to be Turn 2, in front of the new main grandstands. The former Turns 1 and 2 are now Turns 3 and 4 – and vice versa.
“I’m telling you I think moving the start-finish line is going to be a bigger deal than anyone thinks,” Stewart-Haas Racing driver Bowyer said. “I’ve raced at a lot of racetracks all over the country and I have never seen a start-finish line right out of the corner. It’s very, very unique and it’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
“I think where you will see that really play out is on restarts and finishes. How it comes down to that last-lap pass for a position to maybe put yourself in the Playoffs or something – you kind of just have to make it out of that corner. You just have to kind of have forward momentum to make it across the line. That, in my opinion, can bring on some wild, wild things, I think, over the next few years there.”
Perhaps beginning this weekend.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series boasts one of the most dramatic Playoff runs in the sport with five of the top-six drivers in the standings separated by a mere 14 points. Only Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer has secured a position in the foursome that will compete for a series title Nov. 17 in Homestead, Fla.
The season’s winningest drivers Christopher Bell (six wins) and regular season champion Justin Allgaier (five wins) both sit outside the top-four cutoff entering Saturday’s Whelen Trusted to Perform 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
It’s essentially a must-win for sixth ranked Bell who is 34 points behind leader Tyler Reddick. But Bell boasts the most Playoff victories this season (at Richmond, Va. and Dover, Del.). Allgaier is only 12 points behind Reddick and won at Phoenix in the Spring, 2017 race.
Should Reddick maintain his position in the standings, he would become the fourth rookie to earn a spot among the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami.
William Byron won this race last year and then the championship the following week.
CHAMPIONSHIP ON THE LINE
Justin Haley’s victory at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend vaulted the 19-year old into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship picture and with 12 straight top-10 finishes now and three victories, he’s absolutely peaking at the right time.
He goes into Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 at ISM Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90) as a strong championship favorite, sharing final round victory circle honors with two-time series champion Johnny Sauter, who punched his ticket to the Homestead-Miami title race with a victory two weeks ago at Martinsville, Va.
Haley’s win moved him from being on the outside of the championship picture in fifth place, to being a strong candidate to hoist his first series championship trophy. It leaves Grant Enfinger (who had been ranked fourth before Haley’s win) into fifth place in the standings, 18 points behind fourth place Noah Gragson. And two-time former series champion Matt Crafton is sixth in the standings, 23 points behind Gragson.
Sauter, who won this race last year, is the only member of the championship contenders to earn a victory previously on the Phoenix one-miler.