For the five remaining NASCAR Cup drivers still in contention for the one berth to compete for the championship Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the only way they can guarantee a spot is with a win Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
Three of the five could get in on points — Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney — as 22 points separate them going into the elimination race. With 55 points the maximum for a second-place finish, Chase Elliott (49 points behind Keselowski) and Jimmie Johnson (51 points behind) face virtual must-win situations.
None of the drivers feel comfortable.
“I’d feel confident if we were locked in,” said Keselowski, who enters with a 19-point edge on Hamlin for the current cutoff spot. “In these races, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are locked in among the four finalists thanks to their wins at Martinsville and Texas, respectively. Martin Truex Jr. can fall back on his points if he doesn’t win at Phoenix.
Here’s the outlook for the five remaining contenders:
Points: 19 ahead of fourth
Outlook: Keselowski has eight top-10s in 16 career Phoenix starts. As long as he scores some stage points, a 10th-place finish should be good enough unless one of the other drivers can pull off the win. He was fifth at Phoenix in March — the best among the five remaining drivers — but that was his first top-5 at the track in his last five starts. The bottom line is he should hold off his competition if he or his team doesn’t make a mistake.
Points: 19 behind fourth
Outlook: This is a good track for Hamlin, who was 11th in March. He won the March 2012 race at Phoenix and has 10 career top-5 finishes. But he has led only four laps in his last five starts and it appears that even though he has run well in the round, he’s going to need Keselowski to falter.
Points: 22 behind fourth
Outlook: Blaney should figure he can have a solid top-10 finish at Phoenix, where he has six top-10s in seven career starts across NASCAR national series at the track. But he was 21st in March, and he has an uphill battle.
Points: 49 behind fourth
Outlook: Elliott led 106 laps at Phoenix in March, so leading laps and contending for a win is not out of the question, even for a driver who has no finish better than fifth in any series at the track. Elliott seeks his first career Cup win, so the only thing that would top a win-and-in scenario would be earning a first win to win a championship. Elliott would gladly take the win now and then see what happens next week at Homestead.
Points: 51 behind fourth
Outlook: As poorly as Johnson has run the last few weeks, it’s hard to see him contending for a win. Considering Johnson has 83 career Cup wins and seven championships, it seems blasphemous to ever count him out. But it appears that’s the case, even with his four career victories at the track (the last coming in 2009).