Realistically, there are two scenarios likely to play out at Phoenix International Raceway in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, the final race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Round of 8.
The first is that Kevin Harvick wins for the sixth time in seven races here.
If Harvick wins, he knocks out his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, leaving Team Penske’s Joey Logano to do battle with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin for the final spot in the Chase championship round next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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A Harvick victory, of course, would put him in the championship race along with the already-locked-in Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, plus either Logano or one of the three JGR hopefuls.
If Harvick doesn’t win, he won’t make it in on points, barring a highly unusual set of circumstances. Ditto for teammate Busch. That means there will be two Chase spots for Logano and the JGR trio to resolve.
Given that the point spread from second-place Logano to fifth-place Hamlin is just two points, it’s anyone’s guess who will advance. That said some trends already have emerged this weekend.
Logano has had consistent speed, qualifying fourth, and finishing second, fifth and third in the three practices. Logano is the only Chase driver who has never won at Phoenix, but if Harvick doesn’t win on Sunday, Logano looks like the biggest threat to take the victory.
On Sunday, Logano won’t worry about where the others are on the track. “We have learned as a race team to worry about ourselves,” he said. “That is the only way we will control our own destiny.”
Harvick is his usual solid self at Phoenix, qualifying sixth and running sixth in the second practice. But he definitely is aware that a lot can happen still. And he certainly hasn’t looked dominant like he has some weekends here.
“I have been around this long enough to know that there are no givens in this particular sport,” said Harvick, an eight-time Phoenix winner who wound up 14th in Happy Hour. “There are too many things that can go wrong and that can change.”
Hamlin will start fifth, best of the four JGR drivers, and in the three practices, he was fourth on Friday, and tenth in the early practice on Saturday before slumping to 22nd in Happy Hour.
He expects a tight battle with teammates and non-teammates alike. “I think realistically whoever finishes ahead of who is going to get in,” said Hamlin.
Kenseth was a tick behind Hamlin, coming home fourth in the first practice, but finishing 10th in both qualifying and the two practices on Saturday. He plans a business-as-usual approach in the big race.
“You never know what’s going to happen on Sunday,” said Kenseth. “That’s just the way that it is. I think out of the eight (drivers), the four that don’t make it are going to be disappointed whether they’re on the same team or not.”
Surprisingly, Kyle Busch did not have much speed early on. He qualified 19th, worst of any of the eight Chase drivers, and was 19th in Friday’s practice, too.
Things picked up on Saturday, when he was eighth in the first practice, zooming up to the top of the speed charts during the final Happy Hour round of practice. Busch knows what he needs to do on Sunday.
“It just boils down to finishing ahead of those that we’re around, you know?” said Busch. “We’ve got to beat the 20 (Kenseth), we’ve got to beat the 11 (Hamlin) and we’ve got to beat the 22 (Logano).”
Kurt Busch enters the race eighth in points, 33 markers below the Chase cutoff. He needs to win on Sunday, when he’ll start 12th. The elder Busch was eighth, ninth and 20th in the three practices. Those numbers aren’t good enough for him to race for a title.
“Our scenario to advance is to win,” said the elder Busch.
And, really, all six of the drivers battling for the last two Chase spots know what they have to do.
The thing is, only two of them will be able to get it done.