Look for drama in the desert with three Playoff spots up for grabs

09 Nov 2018 Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service
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Look for drama in the desert with three Playoff spots up for grabs NK Photography Photo

You can’t blame Joey Logano for considering himself a favorite to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

He’s the only driver entering Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at the reconfigured ISM Raceway with no stress when it comes to qualifying for the Nov. 18 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Logano won the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway to earn an automatic berth in the title contest. And with the benefits of Kevin Harvick’s victory last Sunday at Texas vacated because of a rear spoiler violation, Logano currently stands alone as a guaranteed finalist.

“Honestly, it’s funny,” Logano said on Thursday night at the Penske Museum in Scottsdale during the announcement of sponsor MoneyLion as a new partner for Team Penske. “I was talking with (crew chief) Todd (Gordon) on the way out here, and I told him, ‘When the Playoffs started, I kind of felt like we were an underdog of making it, and honestly, the last six or seven weeks we’ve led a lot more laps, we’ve won a lot of stages, won a race, was fast at Kansas, was fast at Texas—you know what, I think we’re the favorite to win now.’

“And I think it’s so crazy to think that it can change that quick, but we are the one team that has been able to say we’re locked in the last couple of weeks. I can promise you, I haven’t watched the Phoenix tape when I flew out here. I was focused on one race.”

The other seven drivers still in the mix for the title will spend Sunday in the pressure cooker when the green flag flies in the Sonoran Desert (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).

Harvick, Kyle Busch and reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr.—NASCAR’s so-called Big Three—collectively have won 19 of the 34 races this season, but all three are still fighting for spots in the Championship 4.

With two drivers guaranteed to advance on points, Busch is in the best position. The 2015 series champion has a 28-point lead over his brother, Kurt Busch, the fifth-place driver. Kyle Busch can lock up a spot in the Championship 4 by scoring 31 points on Sunday, no matter who wins the race. That’s good news for a driver who has accumulated 47, 41 and 52 points in the three Phoenix events since the debut of stage racing in 2017.

A total of 34 points will get Truex into the final four, no matter what else happens. Though Truex has never won at ISM Raceway, he finished third in last year’s Playoff race and fifth in the spring after winning the pole. Avoiding disaster and picking up stage points will be Truex’s primary concerns on Sunday.

Harvick’s situation got considerably more perilous with the 40-point penalty he incurred for the infraction at Texas. The 2014 champion enters the Phoenix weekend with a three-point advantage over Kurt Busch, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate. Nor will Harvick have the familiar voice of crew chief Rodney Childers in his ear—both Childers and car chief Bob “Cheddar” Smith are suspended for the final two races of the season.

On the other hand, Harvick has an unmatched record at Phoenix. Seven of his nine victories at the one-mile track have come in the last 12 races, a run that includes a win this past spring.

Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer, seventh and eighth in the Playoff standings, respectively, have only one path to the Championship 4—victory at ISM Raceway on Sunday. But Kurt Busch and sixth-place place Chase Elliott both can qualify on points if circumstances play out in their favor.

If Kurt Busch beats Harvick by three positions, for example, and if Bowyer, Almirola or Elliott doesn’t win the race, Busch would make the final four.

And if one of the drivers in positions five through eight does happen to win, at least one of the Big Three won’t be fighting for the title at Homestead-Miami.

As if there weren’t enough Playoff permutations in Sunday’s race already, the track itself is a major wild card. The start/finish line has been moved to what used to be the backstretch, which will force the majority of cars to restart in Turn 4. The potential for chaos is magnified commensurately.

And the only one who won’t be sweating is Logano.

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