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.