CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Only an amateur would fill out a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship bracket and not mark Kevin Harvick down for a win at Phoenix.
Harvick has proven he’s just about unbeatable in the desert, and when his playoff chances are on the line, he’s delivered time and again. Harvick has won six of the last nine races at Phoenix, finished second in two of his losses and is guaranteed to show up this weekend with a car capable of demoralizing the field.
Assuming it will take nothing short of a freak incident to keep Harvick out of victory lane, there’s essentially only one spot in the finale up for grabs Sunday.
Problem is, there are five drivers jockeying for that last spot.
And only two points separate three of those drivers in the standings.
To say there will be some brokenhearted teams on Sunday is an understatement. This year’s version of the Chase has been anticlimactic, sometimes even boring, but this bottleneck in the standings is something to behold.
Reigning series champion Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are tied in the standings. Busch teammate Matt Kenseth is just one point back, and Denny Hamlin sits two points out.
Only one of them is making it to the final four Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway if Harvick wins, and the chances of Joe Gibbs Racing getting multiple cars into the championship took a hit on Sunday. The team dominated the regular season and had 50 percent of the drivers in this round of eight.
Once a threat to get all four cars into the finale, JGR is only guaranteed to be represented by Carl Edwards, who used a fast pit stop to win a rain-shortened race Sunday night at Texas. It was the least optimal outcome for JGR in terms of getting multiple cars into the finale.
Edwards, you see, was last in the playoff standings and that miracle win gave him an automatic berth. Although the rules show two spots still remaining and three JGR drivers hovering at the top of the standings, the threat of a Harvick win at Phoenix has burst JGR’s hopes.
So here’s the situation:
HARVICK FOR THE WIN: He’s an eight-time winner at Phoenix and has absolutely owned the place since the track was reconfigured in 2011. He’s also in a situation that Harvick handles quite well — he pretty much has to win or won’t make it to the finale for a third straight year.
Harvick is known as a macho driver brimming with confidence, and he didn’t seem concerned about his positioning headed into Phoenix. His warning? He’ll just go to Phoenix and do what he always does there.
JGR: The team had hoped to sweep the finale but can’t because Jimmie Johnson earned one of the spots with a win at Martinsville. Best case scenario is that the team gets two more cars into the final, but that will certainly come with hard internal feelings.
Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin will likely all be racing for themselves on Sunday and teamwork will be an afterthought.
It wouldn’t be a shock if JGR doesn’t get even one more car into the finale because anything can happen on Sunday.
LOGANO: He won at Talladega in the last round to stave off elimination, and he doesn’t need to win at Phoenix to make it to Homestead. He’s essentially racing the Gibbs cars and trying to finish higher than the three Toyotas so he can snatch a spot on points.
It’ll be a tough battle, but Logano likes sticking it to the team that let him go three years ago.
KURT BUSCH: He’s an afterthought right now after iffy performances in the last two races have him ranked last in the standings. He most certainly has to win at Phoenix to advance, and it’s a good track for Busch. He has four consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix and could pull off a miracle.
Should he get the win, it will come at the expense of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick. Based on the standings, they both can’t make the final four.