Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix Raceway on Sunday for the cutoff race before the championship finale at Homestead:
Turn 1: Who gets the final spot to advance to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Well, my heart says Jimmie Johnson, because Jimmie in Miami battling for an eighth title would create great discussion and intrigue. But I can’t see that happening, so my brain says Brad Keselowski. Brad and Kevin Harvick would set the table for a Ford vs. Toyota championship battle.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: I’ve been on the Brad Keselowski train for a while, so I’m not jumping off now. Of the group that remains, he’s the only one that I’ve looked at for a while now and had anywhere close to the same feeling that I’ve had about Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Brad Keselowski. He won’t be great at Phoenix, but he will finish well enough to advance. If any of the four remaining drivers win, it will be Chase Elliott. But it seems his destiny is to not win until 2018.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I’ll go with the unexciting answer, Brad Keselowski. Not only does he have the fourth spot now, along with some points cushion, but he’s been very good on flatter, shorter tracks this season, including a fifth-place run at Phoenix earlier this season, and a win and a 5.1 average finish at Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond and New Hampshire this season.
Turn 2: For the three drivers already qualified for Homestead, who is the last of the five drivers still trying to get in they want to go up against?
Craven: I would say Brad because he’s a former champion, and I think that makes him better equipped in a single-race showdown. Ordinarily it would be a no-brainer. It’s Jimmie Johnson, right? But I don’t think the drivers fear Jimmie or the 48 team the way they have in the past. The 48 team is a shadow of what it has been in the past. No speed.
McGee: Oh, without a doubt, Kyle Larson. Oh, wait. Dang it, I keep doing that. I say Jimmie Johnson. I believe the most dangerous car right now would be Brad, but I believe it is in every racer’s best interest to keep the seven-time champion and his Hall of Fame crew chief out of the mix. No, they have not been good, but do you really want them in a position to swing for the fences?
Pockrass: Denny Hamlin. He was a threat to win at Texas, and he has won twice at Homestead.
Willis: Imagine if you will, the entirety of the Hendrick Motorsports braintrust solely behind the effort of, not Jimmie Johnson, but Chase Elliott. Elliott has come alive in the playoffs and has a pair of second-place finishes and four top-10s in four races on 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs. Going up against a Ford and two Toyotas, Elliott would have a lot of factory support behind him as well.
Turn 3: NASCAR keeps Cup veterans out of playoff races in other national series. In light of a driver more than 20 laps down providing a moving chicane at Texas when he wasn’t actually spinning, should they limit drivers with fewer than five starts from competing on intermediate tracks and longer during the Cup playoffs?
Craven: I don’t think they should limit drivers, but they should have a very short leash on them. NASCAR officials are very well-equipped and experienced to identify drivers who are in over their head, and that’s why one of the flags used for officiating is black. It should probably be closest to the flagman’s left hand.
McGee: I am honestly a little torn with this. The history of the sport has always had these late-season runs by no-name kids who were setting the stage for some of the greatest careers we’ve ever seen. But, as with all things in this chase/playoff era, the rules are different now. If you can’t get out of the way or don’t have enough experience to stay out of the way, you don’t get to play with the big boys. Do that in the middle of the summer.
Pockrass: No. Shouldn’t William Byron be able to race in a Cup event before the Daytona 500? Yes, he should. It wasn’t a rookie issue Sunday; it was a struggling driver (Ray Black Jr.) wheeling a car from an underfunded, struggling team (Rick Ware Racing) issue.
Willis: I’ll echo a thought I’ve had before and fellow upstate New Yorker Regan Smith shared on Twitter, let’s avoid this problem entirely by saying that once you go five laps down in a race, you have to call it a day. It’s impressive to see the full field of 40 cars, and that’s how long the novelty of 40 cars racing has, as I’d rather see it cut down to the competitive machines at that point.
Turn 4: Will Aric Almirola thrive driving for Stewart-Haas Racing?
Craven: I don’t think thrive. I’ve not seen enough from Aric to suggest that he will thrive in Cup, but he certainly has an excellent opportunity, and I think he’s better than what we’ve seen of him the last few years. Aric is capable of winning. He will have the resources, but he must match that with confidence and focus. I feel it’s critical he come out of the gate strong in 2018.
McGee: I hope so. He’s kind of moving into that dreaded zone of one’s career where they are too old to be considered young, and certainly too old to keep being handed the “well, he’ll start winning one day” benefit of the doubt. SHR always feels a little overextended. So, will he be in the Happy/Kurt category or stuck in the “others” zone with Clint Bowyer? Because you know who we never expected to associate with the others zone? Clint Bowyer.
Pockrass: It could depend on your definition of “thrive” — Almirola will run better, but whether he will win races and go deep into the playoffs is questionable. The key will be whether Almirola can put full races together. He always has had the speed.
Willis: It’s better equipment than he’s running now, but I suppose it depends what you mean by thrive? Do I expect to see him win multiple races there? Probably not, considering that Kevin Harvick has only won twice there this year. But it’s reasonable to expect Almirola will come close to what Clint Bowyer did in his first season with the team, six top-fives and 13 top-10s. Those would both easily be career highs for him.