After eight months and 34 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, it's finally time to whittle down the playoff field to this year's Championship 4. ISM Raceway in Phoenix hosts the penultimate race of the season, a Round of 8 elimination which sets up the grand finale next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick enter the weekend sitting pretty. They've both earned spots in the Championship 4 already with wins at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, respectively. That leaves six drivers fighting for two spots to join them while that duo sits back and enjoys the show.
On paper, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are in the driver's seat. Busch is 22 points ahead of the fifth-place cutline, won the last Cup race at ISM Raceway and is riding a streak of four straight Championship 4 appearances. Logano, the reigning Cup champion, holds a 20-point edge and has won here as recently as the fall of 2016.
But those point cushions go out the window if any of the four challengers behind them win. Denny Hamlin, sitting fifth in the standings, has the best shot at success: he's been victorious at ISM Raceway before (2010) and was fifth back in the spring. Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott haven't won here yet but all of them have finished inside the top 3.
"Just because we're in a tough spot and it's our last chance to make it to Homestead doesn't mean it's over," Elliott said Friday, speaking to a win-and-advance mentality. "You just have to approach this week as a new one and know if we win on Sunday, we can race again next week and have a shot at it. It's just not over until it's over."
It just won't be easy. Truex, Harvick, Busch and Logano are bidding to be the first repeat Championship 4 since the current NASCAR postseason format was retooled following the 2013 season. This quartet has piled up half (17) of the 34 Cup wins this year and would be 1-2-3-4 in points without the playoff reset. It's hard to see Busch and Logano making a championship-killing mistake.
But that's why they run the races, right? Logano, who had already clinched by this point last season, failed to finish last year's Phoenix race. He's also caused some drama with Hamlin after the two traded sheet metal and shoves at Martinsville. Can the No. 22 team in particular keep their bumper clean and their driver focused on the ultimate prize?
Busch isn't immune to criticism either, riding a 20-race winless streak and an inconsistent playoff performance. His media sessions have been a constant source of venting frustration to the point some question whether he's having off-track issues, too. Can the regular season points champion, riding that bonus to this point hold it together enough to push on through?
Fans can get frustrated by a focus on the playoffs when 40 drivers still start every race. But this year's postseason explains why it's hard to divert your attention: each of the first eight races have been won by drivers still championship eligible. Whatever the reason, from fear of crashing a title contender to simply not having speed drivers outside the championship hunt have been invisible this postseason. There are two races left to change the narrative but early results aren't promising: playoff drivers posted the top four speeds in final practice.
It's a big race in the Phoenix desert, ISM preparing to heat up even further next year as they host the championship finale for the first time. We'll see what type of appetizer their 2019 race can serve up.
Bluegreen Vacations 500
Time: Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: ISM Raceway (Avondale, Ariz.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
It's been a down year for Stewart-Haas Racing; only one of their four drivers, Harvick, has visited victory lane. So a 1-2-3 finish at Texas was welcome news, locking Harvick into the Championship 4 while reminding competitors this multi-car team hasn't fallen far from their perch atop the Ford fleet.
"The day that you stop thinking about how you're going to evolve," Harvick said after his win, "And get stuck in today and what you did yesterday is the day that this sport will leave you behind. You have to be very open-minded; this is a progressive sport and you have to keep up with that progression on a weekly basis because it changes rapidly.
"Those are the types of things that I have really enjoyed this year, even though we haven't been the dominant car. We've figured out how to win."
They certainly have. Harvick's four wins in the last 15 races (after starting the year 0-for-19) are the most of any Cup driver during that stretch.
Who's at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
The hope for Hendrick Motorsports is their seven-time championship driver is getting all his bad luck out of the way before 2020. After ending his 15-year postseason streak, Johnson has flashed some speed with new crew chief Cliff Daniels but struggled to finish races with three wrecks the last four weeks. The man with more postseason wins than anyone else hasn't even earned a top-5 finish during a playoff race since Dover in the fall of 2017.
Cup Series owner Roger Penske purchased the NTT IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week in what's arguably the biggest motorsports story of the year. It's the first time ownership of the 2.5-mile oval has changed in over 70 years. Penske, whose team is the most successful all-time in the Indy 500, will now face conflict of interest questions taking over an entire series where he's the reigning champion. Early indications are Penske is interested in more NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheader weekends as a way to enhance the popularity of both series. He's also been a strong advocate of guaranteed starting spots in the Indy 500 for full-time competitors.
Luke Lambert is leaving his crew chief position at Richard Childress Racing next season. Lambert, currently the head wrench for rookie Daniel Hemric, will move over to Roush Fenway Racing and work with Chris Buescher on the No. 17 Ford. He's got one career victory in the past seven seasons, paired with veterans Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman before moving to Hemric in 2019.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series driver lineup is coming into focus for 2020. Joe Gibbs Racing made the biggest announcement of the week, adding young Riley Herbst to their lineup full-time for 2020. The 20-year-old racer has four top-10 finishes in nine career Xfinity starts and will drive the team’s No. 18 Toyota. Some smaller teams made announcements, too; Ray Black Jr. is returning to SS-Green Light Racing full-time and BJ McLeod Motorsports is retaining both Matt Mills and Vinnie Miller. Then, on Friday at Phoenix, Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Jesse Little announced he’ll move up to Xfinity full-time with JD Motorsports.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers who have combined to win the last eight fall races at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson won four in a row from 2012-15, then Carl Edwards won in 2016 before Harvick took over and swept the last three.
Lead changes at Texas this past weekend, the most aside from Talladega Superspeedway since the Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I know it's cliche but playoff drivers are the name of the game here as we enter the season's homestretch. They're eight-for-eight in notching wins thus far during the postseason and ISM Raceway should be no exception.
Kevin Harvick has the best track record here, earning a track record nine career victories here. He's also riding a streak of 12 straight top-10 finishes but beware; he's expensive and enters the weekend in a win-or-bust mentality with his spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway already secure.
A cheaper option for you might be Ryan Blaney, whose track record at ISM Raceway is mediocre by comparison (one top-5 finish in seven starts). But that top-5 performance, a third, came back in the spring after Blaney started from the pole. At the very least, expect him to lead a handful of laps which translate into a good chunk of bonus points for your roster.
Denny Hamlin would be next on my list, followed by Chase Elliott. Just know both have crashed here in the past while attempting to come from behind to make the Championship 4. High risk, high reward potential here.
Aric Almirola, fresh off a season-best second-place finish at Texas, has four straight top-10 finishes at ISM Raceway. Expect him to keep building momentum for 2020 while becoming an inexpensive option for your roster.
Alex Bowman posted top-5 speeds in practice and nearly won at ISM Raceway in 2016 while subbing for former No. 88 driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. My only hesitation is the three career DNFs for Bowman in eight starts: he's crashed out here twice in a row.
David Ragan has three straight top-25 finishes at ISM Raceway and is preparing to hang up his helmet at the end of the season. Remember when Matt Kenseth got hot for the final few races of 2018 with Roush Fenway Racing? There's something to drivers stepping up their game when retirement nears.
Ty Dillon has a quiet streak of five top-20 finishes in his last six ISM Raceway starts with Germain Racing. 15th in the spring, Dillon hasn't led a lap here in his Cup career but a finish like that will be plenty good enough for the bottom end of your roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch holds the edge with 3/1 odds to win Phoenix. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick trail behind at 5/1.
A good longshot, Bowman, sits at 50/1 odds.
What I Think
I'll say Kyle Busch pushes ahead to end his 20-race winless streak and set himself up for the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale. Joey Logano edges Denny Hamlin for the final spot but he better keep himself away from the No. 11 during crunch time.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)