Two famous sons. One NASCAR final four spot.
Could Sunday be a battle between them?
Heading into Phoenix, both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney find themselves on the outside of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4. Three of the spots have already been decided after Kevin Harvick’s thrilling victory at Texas; Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have also earned a spot on the title grid. Five drivers remain, left to fight for one final chance to earn a title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The other three drivers who could still advance (Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin) are under heavy pressure. By all accounts, every year they’re supposed to be there. Keselowski is a former champion, winning in 2012 and producing three victories with his Team Penske Ford. Johnson, the reigning champ can never be counted out, even during a down year as he seeks a record-breaking eighth title. And Hamlin, the 2010 championship runner-up, is always a factor driving a Toyota Camry whose body style has lapped the competition this year.
Behind them sits Elliott and Blaney. Combined, their ages (44) are still younger than the sport’s oldest full-time driver, Matt Kenseth. They’re just starting out, rising up the ladder and far beyond what anyone expected of them at this stage of the game.
Both young men are not supposed to be here. Elliott had gone winless this season, enduring a sophomore slump until the playoffs brought him back to life. Most of laps led this season (344 of 526) have come during the last eight races; he’s also earned three runner-up finishes. Suddenly, in an instant Johnson looks old and the No. 24 Chevrolet looks like the best car in the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports stable.
The playoffs have seen Elliott playing with house money while gaining the same popularity father Bill earned on his way to winning NASCAR’s old Winston Million prize in 1985. Elliott’s southern roots connect to a fan base looking for their next southeastern hero after a man named Earnhardt. He’s tempted them often this year, between a late Talladega charge to the front and Martinsville’s late-race mixup with Hamlin.
Blaney is the other surprise, overachieving while finishing up his tenure with one of the sport’s legendary teams. Driving the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford to victory in Pocono, the team’s first win there since 1980, earned Blaney an unlikely shot at the title. That rise was supposed to come in 2018, his first year running for Team Penske full-time in a third car armed with all the resources money could buy.
Instead, Blaney has not only survived but also thrived with a single-car team during these playoffs. The “lame duck” has not finished lower than 23rd during this stretch, earning five top-10 finishes in eight races which has snuck him inside the Round of 8. The Wood Brothers Ford hasn’t had the speed to run up front, leading just 30 laps (27 at Talladega) but Blaney’s advanced. That’s more than former title contender Kyle Larson and the veteran Kenseth can say at this point.
Elliott and Blaney are the duo, then, left with nothing to lose. They both stepped to the forefront Friday, Elliott leading first practice at Phoenix before Blaney soared to just the second pole of his young career. Barring a miracle, both need a win to move on and they’re certainly racing like it.
NASCAR is investing heavily in these 20-something drivers as the wave of the future. In some ways, they’ve advertised 2017-18 as a changing of the guard, major veterans like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth, and Carl Edwards leaving the sport in favor of Elliott, Blaney, Larson, and others rising up. But the playoff results so far have leaned towards the sport’s veteran presence. Harvick (41 years old) is in the Championship 4 along with 37-year-old Truex. Kyle Busch (32), who’s got a love/hate relationship with the fan base, is caught in the middle.
Adding a 20-something phenom to that list would suddenly spice the battle up. So it’s the presence of Elliott and Blaney up front which sweetens the pot for a Sunday race that might have been tame otherwise (Keselowski, with a 19-point edge could have coasted to that fourth spot without his rivals in contention for victory). Both men can afford to be aggressive when they’ve already checked their 2017 goals off the list.
With that duo in contention, we’ll see if the desert can produce a surprise fourth contender in Homestead-Miami. Otherwise, after a year of change, the emergence of NASCAR’s next generation will remain an illusion in terms of its championship chase.
Time: Sunday, Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Let’s take this moment to applaud Harvick sneaking into the Championship 4 in what’s been a underwhelming year for the No. 4 team. In their first year with Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing struggled through the regular season. Two of their teams didn’t make the playoffs and one, driven by Danica Patrick, has been out of contention for years. Kurt Busch, despite making the postseason along with Harvick has been little help outside of his upset Daytona 500 win.
But somehow, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers weathered the challenges and found opportunity in the waning laps at Texas. Sweeping by Martin Truex Jr., the sport’s intermediate track king, once the No. 78 got caught in lapped traffic it put Harvick in position for a second title in four years. Quietly, Harvick has four top-5 finishes in the eight races of the NASCAR Playoffs and the team appears to be peaking at the right time.
Who’s at the Back: Chip Ganassi Racing
Kyle Larson earns the “honor” a second straight week after back-to-back-to-back DNFs. It’s the first time in his career he’s endured such a slump after the No. 42 Chevrolet wrecked at Texas. It’s no surprise, then, Larson unleashed some frustration after the race, calling out his team for a bad stop that left a once front-running car mired in traffic.
But he’s not the only one suffering through bad luck at Chip Ganassi Racing. Jamie McMurray, also knocked out of the playoffs in the Round of 12 has four straight finishes outside the top 15. He’s wrecked twice, suffered engine woes in the closing laps at Texas, and looks nothing like the consistent driver who pointed his way into the postseason.
What’s next for CGR after a frustrating finish? Could some internal crew changes be on the horizon? And who will replace Target as the primary backer of Larson in 2018?
Aric Almirola was officially introduced Wednesday as Danica Patrick’s replacement at Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola will drive the No. 10 full-time next season with backing from longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods. It’s the biggest moment of the 33-year-old’s career; he’s had no more than seven top-10 finishes in a season driving for middle-class equipment at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Billy Scott will stay on as crew chief of the No. 10 Ford but the head wrenches for some of the other SHR teams remain undecided. At the very least, Tony Gibson is expected to step off the road, leaving an opening at Kurt Busch’s No. 41 car.
Cambridge, Wisconsin, high school golf coach Brent Nottestad lost his job this week after racist tweets directed at Darrell Wallace Jr. Nottestad, who tweeted several times at Wallace after he earned a full-time Cup ride next season, made a series of racist tweets in which he used the number 1,423 – often connected to white supremacist groups – while saying “quit with the I’m black bs.” Nottestad has since apologized but was quickly relieved of his job once the statements were widely reported.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish for Martin Truex Jr. through 34 Cup Series races. He’s the only driver averaging better than a 10th-place result.
Average finish for Jimmie Johnson over the past four NASCAR Playoff races. He’s led just 29 laps this postseason, easily the worst performance for him during this stretch in his Cup career.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
He’s been off lately at Phoenix but it’s still hard to bet against Kevin Harvick. Eight of his victories have come at this track, a NASCAR high; by comparison, he has no more than three anywhere else. The No. 4 car has finished no worse than sixth at the track since Harvick took the ride in 2014; it makes him as close to an automatic as you can get for any track on your roster.
Denny Hamlin is less likely to win than some of the other playoff drivers Sunday. His last Phoenix victory came in 2010 and he’s led just four laps over his last five starts. But Hamlin is consistent at this one-mile oval; he’s got a career average finish of 10.8 and has four straight top-10 finishes. The No. 11 is whom you want if you’re looking for points to cap off a championship season, not boom-or-bust.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. winds down his career, Phoenix offers perhaps one final opportunity for Victory Lane. The No. 88 car was dominant here last fall with replacement Alex Bowman and Earnhardt took the win in the fall of 2015. He has three straight top-15 finishes at the track and has been running well enough as of late to put on your roster.
Sunday is one more opportunity to use quality rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones if you still have options to use them. Both freshmen start inside the top 11 and are in a heated battle for Rookie of the Year. Each driver had top-10 finishes at this track in the spring and should produce a repeat performance.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is holding the edge Saturday at the Bovada Sportsbook in Las Vegas, holding 5/2 odds to 4/1 for Kevin Harvick. Martin Truex Jr. is next on the list with 9/2 odds.
What I Think
Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott clearly have nothing to lose. But while Elliott has come close, I’m going to gamble on Blaney surprising NASCAR Nation and earning the final spot in the Championship 4 by winning from the Phoenix pole.
— 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.