Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway not only earned him a guaranteed position among the Championship 4 drivers to challenge for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title – it certainly upped the intrigue-level for Sunday’s already championship crucial Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver, Harvick, was ranked fifth heading into the Texas Playoff race, but by securing a position alongside Martinsville Speedway winner Martin Truex Jr. in the Championship 4 Round that leaves regular season champion Kyle Busch and defending series champion Joey Logano separated by only two points in a tight battle for the top points position and guaranteed spot in the Championship 4 – no matter who wins at Phoenix.
Texas was a massive scenario shift for the eight title hopefuls, and especially for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, who has five wins and had been among the top three in the championship standings for the last five weeks of Playoff competition. His 28th-place finish at Texas on Sunday was his worst showing of the Playoffs and only the second time since Daytona in July that he finished a race 20th or worse.
Hamlin went into Texas ranked second in the points standings and is now fifth, just outside Championship 4 eligibility. He was 24 points ahead of fifth place Harvick prior to the Texas green flag. Now he is in fifth place, 20 points behind fourth place Joey Logano with one race left to decide the 2019 slate of title contenders.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch has won the last two races at ISM Raceway, which debuted a major renovation project in last year’s Playoff race.
“The car and the effort will be there, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said of his Phoenix prospects. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can go there and win. In these circumstances, I like the challenge. We’re going to go out there and give it our best foot forward and see if we can’t get a win next week.”
Certainly that’s the same plan of attack for Busch and Logano who lead a tight battle for the all-important final two positions. Should a Playoff driver – currently below the Championship 4 cutline – win on Sunday, that driver is automatically eligible for the Championship 4 Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and only one points position will transfer. Should any other driver win, then the top two points positions would be eligible for the Miami season finale.
Hamlin is in fifth, 20 points behind Logano, followed closely by Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson who are tied in sixth – 23 points behind Logano in the cutoff position. Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott is eighth, 88 points out and absolutely needing a victory at Phoenix to advance to his first ever Championship 4.
Busch, a four-race winner in 2019, hasn’t won since the June 2 Pocono Raceway 400-miler – 21 races ago. Logano, a two-race winner in 2019, hasn’t won since the June 9 Michigan race, 20 races ago.
Certainly Busch’s track record at Phoenix gives the 2015 series champion reason to be optimistic this weekend. His three-victory total is second only to Harvick’s series leading nine wins at the track among the championship hopefuls. Busch and Harvick are the only Playoff drivers with multiple wins at ISM Raceway. And Hamlin, who won in 2012 and Logano, who earned a clutch 2016 Playoff victory, are the only other current Playoff drivers to have celebrated in Phoenix’s Victory Lane.
Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has an impressive 20 top-10 finishes in 28 Phoenix Cup starts and has seven top-five finishes in the last eight races. He has three career runner-up finishes (2011-1, 2016-2 and 2018-1) along with his trio of trophies. And he’s led 536 laps in just the last five races there – 34 percent of all laps run in that time.
Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, has 10 top-10 finishes in 21 Phoenix starts but has only a single top 10 (and led 82 laps) in the last five races there. He was 10th this Spring.
“We all know one guy is going to move through on points and we have to do whatever we have to do in order to be that guy,” Busch said following his seventh-place finish at Texas.
“If we can obviously go to Phoenix and have a strong run and be able to go out there and win, that will put ourselves through as well too. We’re two (points) on the 22 (Logano) so it’s going to be a race between the 18 and the 22 (Logano), imagine that.”
Busch left no doubt about his focus.
“That’s who we’re racing, the 22,” he said. “No matter what anyone else does, if we finish ahead of him then we’re in.”