Will points racing in Phoenix determine the Championship 4?
Will the madness and the mayhem continue as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits its penultimate round? Will emotions continue to boil and the racing stay fierce and combative?
History would say yes to all those questions.
The Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup concludes Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway with the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. And when it does, four drivers will advance to the season-ending, one-race Championship Round the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Four others will be eliminated.
So far in the Chase, two races have ended in brawls and the pressure and acrimony are at a fever pitch, which is exactly what NASCAR wanted.
Sunday’s race could end in similar histrionics, given that the race will cut the championship field in half.
Or maybe not.
If you look closely at the current statistics, they suggest that the top three drivers in points right now are pretty safe and the Phoenix round could come down to the dreaded "points racing."
Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin will make to Phoenix by finishing 11th or better; 12th or better with one lap led; or 13th or better with the most laps led. Logano has not finished worse than 12th in the entire Chase and Hamlin has four top 10s in the last five races. They can afford to be conservative on Sunday.
Ryan Newman can make it in by finishing ninth or better; 10th or better with one lap led; or 11th with the most laps led. Prior to coming home 15th at Texas last Sunday, Newman had finished eighth or better in five consecutive races. He, too, can play it somewhat safe this weekend.
Unless Logano, Hamlin and/or Newman falters on Sunday, that leaves five other drivers fighting for the fourth and final spot. Realistically, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick need to win to get in.
There’s always a chance something strange could happen — one of the top three crashes or has a disastrous pit stop that opens the door for someone else to advance — but the best way to move on is to win.
Here’s where it get interesting: Jeff Gordon has two victories and 11 top fives at PIR, but in the six races since the track’s reconfiguration in 2011, Gordon has only one top-five and an average finish of 16.3. The only Chase driver with a worse average finish at PIR is Kenseth at 17.2.
The best drivers on the "new" PIR? Harvick, with victories in three of the last four races and an average finish of 6.2, and Keselowski at 7.8.
Last Sunday at Texas, Gordon, Harvick and Keselowski fought hard for the race win with eventual victor Jimmie Johnson. Do not be surprised to see a repeat on Sunday in the Sonoran Desert west of Phoenix.