Entering Sunday’s penultimate race at Phoenix, three drivers have clinched a spot in the final four for the championship race at Homestead.
Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick will race for the championship, which leaves one spot open for five other playoff drivers.
Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson will compete for the final spot, and a win by any of those five will automatically clinch them the final spot in the championship race.
If none of those five can win the race, the final spot will be determined by points. Keselowski has a 19-point advantage over Hamlin, but a lead that slim can be erased quickly. Blaney is three points behind Hamlin, while Elliott and Johnson have a bigger gap to overcome.
For Elliott and Johnson to advance, they’ll most likely have to win the race outright — which would be his first career win. Elliott didn’t have a great race last week, and his chances were hurt the previous week after his wreck with Hamlin. If he doesn’t have a chance to win, would he take an opportunity to retaliate against Hamlin? That doesn’t seem like his style, but he’s still likely fuming over Hamlin wrecking him at Martinsville.
Johnson struggled at Texas, and he’ll need to put together his best race of the season if he wants to advance for a chance to win his eighth championship. Despite his three wins earlier this season, it doesn’t feel like Johnson’s year to win it all. He has won four times at Phoenix, but his last win at the track came in 2009.
Blaney has a chance to advance on points, but his lack of experience in this realm could hurt him against a few veteran drivers. But Blaney has silenced any doubters with multiple impressive runs this postseason, and even if he doesn’t advance, he’ll benefit from competing in this environment.
Of the five drivers vying for a spot at Homestead, Johnson and Hamlin are the only two with victories at Phoenix in the past. Hamlin won there once in 2012, but while Toyotas have dominated this season, they haven’t exactly had the most success at Phoenix. Toyotas have won there only twice, while Chevrolet has had the most success there of any manufacturer.
Keselowski has never won at Phoenix, and he might not have to if he finishes better than the rest of the other five drivers. He has the advantage in the points, and it’s possible a stage win could propel him to the next round. If he does advance, that would mean Truex would be the only driver in the final four who hasn’t won a championship.
And just because Truex, Busch and Harvick have already clinched spots in the next round doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to take their foot off the gas at Phoenix. Harvick has won eight times at Phoenix, and he could go for his second straight win on Sunday.
The alt_driver pick to advance and win the race on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway is Brad Keselowski. He can advance solely on points, but we are picking him to win the race outright.
In case our readers disagree, we’ll leave it up to you to decide who you think advances: