Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – As expected, this week’s championship set-up race, the Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) comes with plenty of storylines and title possibilities still to be decided.
Of the eight remaining Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff competitors, only Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have assured themselves a position in the driver foursome that will race for the 2019 series title next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Regular season champion Kyle Busch is third in the standings with only a two-point advantage on fourth place Joey Logano.
Five-race winner Denny Hamlin leads the four-driver charge to displace one or both of those drivers. He trails Logano by 20 points. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are 23 points behind Logano and Chase Elliott is 78 points back – needing nothing short of a victory to advance to his first career NASCAR Championship 4.
That third and fourth position in the standings are so important as points will decide at least one of those spots in the Championship 4 – depending on whether Phoenix crowns a winner from inside the Playoff field or outside of it.
If the standings remain the same following Sunday’s race, with Truex, Harvick, Busch and Logano advancing, it will mark the first time in NASCAR’s Playoff era that the same four drivers made up the Championship 4 in back-to-back seasons. It also ensures the first multi-time champion in the series since Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh season title in 2016.
Certainly, Busch shows up in the Arizona desert feeling most optimistic. He has won both races since a complete revision to the one-mile ISM Raceway that included – among other things – repositioning the start/finish line to the other side of the race track. Although the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won the regular season championship and has four race victories in 2019, Busch hasn’t won since June 2 at Pocono Raceway.
Logano, the reigning series champion and driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, has a pair of wins this season and challenged Busch for the regular season title. But he hasn’t won a race since June 9 at Michigan. He has one win at Phoenix – the 2016 Playoff race.
Other than Hamlin, who won in 2012 at Phoenix, none of the other three drivers trying to break into the top four have previously won a Cup race at the track. Blaney’s best work came just this March, however, when the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford started on the pole, led 94 laps and finished third.
Larson, driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has five Top-10 finishes in 11 Phoenix starts with a best finish of runner-up in the 2017 March race. He was third in the Playoff race here last year and finished sixth earlier this season.
“Phoenix has been a pretty good place for us,” Larson said. “We’ve had some strong runs there and competed for wins, and I think we’ll have another competitive Camaro this weekend.
“Our team has never made it this close to a shot at the Final Four, and even though we’re not in a great place in the points, we’re excited about our chances this weekend. I think our strategy has been good the last two races, we just didn’t have things work out on track in our favor last weekend.
“It sounds like the traction compound will be applied this weekend similar to last weekend and I think that plays into my ability to move around during the race to find speed. So, we’ll head to the track this weekend ready to do what we can to have a good race and hopefully advance.”
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is the acknowledged longshot this weekend. But he is averaging an 11.3 finish in three Playoff races at ISM Raceway. His best finish was a runner-up showing in 2017 – a high profile afternoon because he made contact with Hamlin late in the event. Hamlin had led 193 laps but finished 35th after his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota suffered damage after the contact with Elliott – all stemming from an on-track feud between the drivers earlier in the Playoffs.
While Truex, the 2017 series champion, leads the standings heading to Phoenix, he has never won at the track before. His best career finish, however, came in March when his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished second to teammate Kyle Busch.
Harvick joins Busch as a high-odds favorite this weekend. Although he’s not won at the new-look ISM Raceway, he boasts a record nine wins at the track. His 16 top-five finishes and 1,595 laps led is also most in the field. Last week’s Texas winner has earned 12 straight top-10 finishes at Phoenix winning the last race (March, 2018) on the former version of the track. He was fifth in this race last year in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and ninth this Spring.
Among current drivers, 2019 Playoff drivers have won every Phoenix race but one (Ryan Newman, 2017) since Fall, 2011.
ISM RACWAY TO DECIDE XFINITY’S CHAMP 4
There’s plenty of reason to understand a confident Christopher Bell this weekend at ISM Raceway. He is the defending winner of Saturday’s Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the series’ most recent winner taking the trophy at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend to become the only Playoff driver so far eligible to hoist the big trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week.
The Texas win was Bell’s season-best eighth victory and certainly sends a strong message of contention to his closest competitors. Just below the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the standings is seven-race winner Cole Custer, driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford who holds a slim 16-point edge on five-race winner Tyler Reddick – the reigning series champion and driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Justin Allgaier – who joins Bell as the only former Phoenix race winners in Saturday’s field – is in fourth place in the standings with an 18-point advantage on fifth place Chase Briscoe for that all-important final championship eligible transfer position.
Veteran Michael Annett, driver of the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, is 28 points behind Allgaier. Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, is seventh, 31 points back and rookie Noah Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, is 47 points behind Allgaier.
Among these eight drivers, Reddick boasts the best average finish (8.2) at ISM Raceway with three top-10 finishes in four races. Cindric is averaging 8.3 finish in three starts, including a pair of top five showings.
Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, has the next best average finish (9.1) among those Playoff drivers with multiple starts at the Phoenix track. He has that March, 2017 win and six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes – tops among all the championship eligible drivers. He was runner-up to Cup regular Brad Keselowski in last Spring’s Xfinity race.
Both Custer (9.6) and Bell (9.8) are the only other drivers to have an average better than 10th. Annett, whose 14 starts is second only to Allgaier’s 18 races, is averaging a 15.2 finish and has yet to lead a lap at ISM Raceway.
Among the rookies, Briscoe was sixth in his only previous Xfinity Series start at Phoenix earlier this year. Gragson was 11th in his only start.
Allgaier is the only driver to score top-10 finishes in the first two races of this Playoff round – fifth at Kansas and sixth at Texas – and is averaging 5.5. With a Texas win and 12th-place finish at Kansas, Bell is averaging 6.5 this round and Annett is next with a 7.5 average in the two races – fourth at Kansas and 11th at Texas.
The others average finish in this round includes: Custer (9.5), Briscoe (12.5), Cindric (14), Reddick (15.5) and Gragson (21.5).
“I am happy we aren’t on the cut-off line or anything like that,” Custer said. “That makes it a lot less stressful. At the same time, we aren’t locked in so we have to make sure we do our jobs and not have any big mistakes.
“I think we can go there and be good, we just have to make it happen.”
CLOSE BATTLE FOR GANDER TRUCKS AT PHOENIX
The championship set-up for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series features the closest points battle among NASCAR’s three national series. Only 15 points separate fourth place Hattori Racing Enterprise’s Austin Hill from sixth place Tyler Ankrum with four drivers trying to earn championship eligibility into the Nov. 15 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
None of the six current Playoff drivers has earned a victory in this round of the Playoff competition. However defending series champion Brett Moffitt, driver of the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet, comes into Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the defending winner – winning in his first series start at the historic one-mile track last November.
Moffitt holds a 10-point edge on Stewart Friesen, who leads Ross Chastain by 15 points atop the standings. Hill is fourth and this group has accounted for 11 wins in the 21 races to date.
A victory this weekend at ISM Raceway, however, would be game-changing – guaranteeing a position to race for the championship in Miami. Since the Playoff format, no Championship 4 has been entirely set on points, but this season’s could possibly be the first and at the very least three drivers will “point” their way into title eligibility.
In addition to Moffitt’s perfect record at Phoenix, both Niece Motorsport’s Ross Chastain (2018) and ThorSport Racing’s Matt Crafton (2014) have runner-up finishes. Friesen’s best ever showing at the track came last year (fifth). Ankrum, who drives the DGR-Crosley Toyota was sixth last year – his second career Gander Trucks start.
Hill has yet to finish at race in two previous ISM Raceway starts – his best result a 23rd last year.
In the two races of this Playoff round, Friesen, the driver of the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Chevrolet, has the best average finish (5.5) with a fifth (at Talladega) and sixth (Martinsville) place efforts.
Chastain has had the next best showing with a runner-up at Martinsville to answer a 22nd-place finish at Talladega. Crafton is averaging 15.5 in this Playoff round, followed by Hill and Ankrum, who have averaged a 16.0 finish. Defending champ Moffitt has a 16.5 average with a fourth place at Talladega and a 29th place at Martinsville – the worst finish in this round by any of the six drivers.