Denny Hamlin on Phoenix: ‘It’s a pressure race and I like pressure’
Carl Edwards is in.
But with only two spots left in the Championship 4, the three remaining Joe Gibbs Racing drivers left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs know that their opportunities for remaining alive in the 2016 championship hunt are shrinking.
Actually, with Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick the heavy favorite entering this Sunday’s final race in the Chase Round of 8, JGR’s Matt Kenseth said he figures he, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin likely will be racing each other for one spot in the Championship 4.
“If you look at Phoenix and you pencil in Harvick to win that one, that’s only two Gibbs cars (overall that can get in),” Kenseth said.
One of those is Edwards, who punched his ticket in the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway by winning last Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas. Another spot in the Championship 4 was claimed a week earlier by Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who won at Martinsville.
Technically, two of the three remaining JGR drivers could still survive to battle in the winner-take-all season finale that will determine this season’s champ.
But for that to happen, Harvick probably would have to stumble at the Phoenix track where he has won six of the last eight races, and eight in his career overall. That includes a stretch in which Harvick has won five of the last six, finishing second in the only one he didn’t win.
Like Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin said they aren’t counting on that happening. That’s why they hope to make something happen themselves by winning – or at least contending for the win – at Phoenix.
“We just have to keep doing what we know how to do,” said Busch, the defending Sprint Cup champion who rallied from a rough start to his weekend to finish fifth at Texas. “We have to make sure we can run in the top five and make sure we can go to Victory Lane if possible. We’ve had all the finishes that we need thus far, we just have to be able to go out there one more week and be able to get another one.”
All three of the JGR drivers are within two points of each other in the current Round of 8 Chase standings. Busch is tied with Team Penske’s Joey Logano with 4,074 points, with Kenseth one behind them and Hamlin two behind – and therefore currently two behind the cutoff line for the Championship 4.
Hamlin said he takes solace in the fact that he ran well at Phoenix earlier this season, starting and finishing third.
“Phoenix was a good track for us in the spring,” Hamlin said. “I look to go back there and have another great run and go out there and try to win. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Of course, that’s the goal every week, as Kenseth stressed once again following his seventh-place Texas run.
“I would love to win last week, I would love to win this week and I’d love to win every week,” Kenseth said. “It doesn’t really change. You go there and run as hard as you can. But if you’re running seventh, there’s nothing you can do to miraculously win.
“We’re going to go there with the idea of winning. That’s on everyone’s agenda with us all stacked in there pretty tight in the points. Winning is obviously what you’re looking for.”
Win and the rest, as in which and how many of the JGR drivers join Edwards in the Championship 4 at Homestead, takes care of itself.
“We want to be one of the other Gibbs cars that gets to go there at Homestead to battle this out,” Busch said.
Hamlin added: “Any time I’ve been below (the cut line) in an elimination race, I’ve found a way to get in (to the next round) … so I like our chances. It’s a pressure race and I like pressure.”