By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The Round of Eight all comes down to this.
After last week’s race at Texas, the stage is set for the final race of the round in Phoenix to determine which drivers will move onto Homestead and which drivers will see their championship hopes vanish in the Arizona desert.
Phoenix has resided on the Cup Series schedule since 1988, but the track looks completely different than it did 29 years ago, having undergone a reconfiguration back in 2011. The reconfiguration added progressive banking to the turns and also involved a complete redesign of the backstretch, which created a more severe dogleg with 10 to 11 degrees of progressive banking. The new dogleg on the backstretch also left a large paved area where the old track used to run and that feature lends itself to drivers cutting the corner to try and make passes and make up time. The results of that have about a 50/50 success/failure rate as some drivers can make great moves through there to advance their positions, while others end up with a wadded up racecar.
Three of the four spots in the championship race at Homestead have been set, leaving five drivers to vie for the final transfer spot. Brad Keselowski holds a 19 point advantage heading into Phoenix, but anything can happen out in the Arizona desert, especially if one of the other eligible drivers (Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, or Jimmie Johnson) ends the day in victory lane.
By the Numbers
What: Can-Am 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 35 of 36
Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)
TV/Radio: NBC, 2:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 1.0 mile oval
Banking: 10 to 11 degrees in Turns 1-2 and backstretch dogleg, Eight to nine degrees in Turns 3-4
Race Length: 312 laps, 312 miles (500 km)
Stage Lengths: First two stages – 75 laps each, Final stage – 162 laps
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
Fuel Window: 85 to 90 laps
March 2017 Race Winner: Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet (Started 22nd, six laps led)
November 2016 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started fourth, 58 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (25.147 seconds, 143.158 mph – November 13, 2015)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Phoenix:
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 111.0 (4 wins)
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 110.3 (8 wins)
- Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 107.9 (Best finish: 8th)
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 99.7 (1 win)
- Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 97.0 (1 win)
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 95.1 (1 win)
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 94.4 (Best finish: 3rd)
- Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 92.7 (Best finish: 2nd)
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 92.0 (1 win)
- Erik Jones – No. 77 Toyota – 91.9 (Best finish: 8th)
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings:
- Martin Truex, Jr – Clinched spot in Championship 4 on points
- Kyle Busch – Clinched with Martinsville win
- Kevin Harvick – Clinched with Texas win
- Brad Keselowski (+19 over elimination cut-off)
- Denny Hamlin (-19)
- Ryan Blaney (-22)
- Chase Elliott (-49)
- Jimmie Johnson (-51)
From the Driver’s Seat
“The key to success at Phoenix is just having a good, neutral racecar,” said Clint Bowyer. “Both ends of the track are quite different with turns one and two being a pretty tight arc and turns three and four being a pretty open, sweeping corner. So, there’s really no perfect setup. You have to find a happy medium with good balance, and then find a middle ground. After that, it’s track position that’s important. You have to qualify well and make sure you stay up front.
“Since the repave, the track has changed quite a bit, so your driving has to also change. I was probably better with the old, worn-out surface and softer tires. Now, with the harder tires, the new repave and new construction off turn two, plus the difference in the track – it’s been a challenge for me. But again, this is a new world, with new equipment.”
Last Year’s Results
Though he isn’t in the playoff race this time around, Phoenix was the site of much jubilation for Joey Logano and Team Penske in this race last November as he punched his ticket into the championship race.
Starting the day in fourth place, Logano made his presence known in the early going, taking over the lead from polesitter Alex Bowman at lap 93 for a 27 lap stint at the front of the field. Though he would lose the lead to Jimmie Johnson and Bowman at lap 120, he powered right back to the lead at lap 134 for another 23 laps at the point.
Logano’s Achilles heel throughout the day was his long run speed as his car would fade the longer the run went and that became evident in the later stages of the race as he fought to hold off Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps. Getting passed by both drivers would mean certain doom for his chances to be able to advance.
Luckily for Logano, he was saved by a late caution with two laps to go as he was in the midst of his battle with Kyle Busch and Harvick, setting everyone up for a hectic restart. On the restart, the two lead cars of Matt Kenseth and Alex Bowman got into each other, which cleared the way for Logano to move into the lead on the ensuing final restart. From that point on, it was all Logano as he went on to score his first win at Phoenix and his third win of the season.
Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Kyle Larson, Harvick, and Kurt Busch to round out the top-five. Bowman finished sixth after leading the most laps for his best career Cup Series finish.
“It was incredible,” said Logano. “What a fun race. That last restart was crazy. I knew it was going to be and there were a ton of scenarios playing out with the 4 and 18 and myself and the restart before that with the 20 up there. Everyone was racing for a championship. This wasn’t just a race. This was for a shot at the championship next week. The 22 car is going there and we have a hell of a shot at it. I couldn’t be more proud of the team executing today under pressure. There is no way you could put more pressure on them then they had today. I couldn’t be prouder of them for giving me the opportunity to do what I can on that last restart.”
“There was a lot of stress inside the car, believe me. I wasn’t fast on the long run. I was trying to hold them off. The 18 got by me and the 4 got underneath me a couple times coming there with two to go. I knew it was going to be tight and we were racing really hard there. It was neat to see how clean Kevin raced me and the 18 as well there on the last lap. It was a lot of fun.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, November 10
- MENCS Practice (1:00 pm to 2:25 pm – NBC Sports Network)
- MENCS Qualifying (6:45 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Saturday, November 11
- MENCS Practice (11:30 am to 12:25 pm – NBC Sports Network)
- MENCS Final Practice (2:00 pm to 2:50 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Sunday, November 12
- MENCS Can-Am 500 at Phoenix (2:30 pm – 312 laps, 312 miles – NBC)