1. Will Kevin Harvick drive to five straight at Phoenix?
The track may be called Jeff Gordon Raceway in tribute to the four-time champion, but don’t get the wrong idea, this is still the place owned by Kevin Harvick.
With four consecutive days ending in Victory Lane, you have to look at the laps led to truly understand the severity of his Phoenix command.
In the last three races alone, Harvick has led an outstanding 712 laps, more than six other Chasers have led in their entire respective careers at Phoenix. In the past four races, Harvick has earned 391 fastest race laps and has held a perfect 150-point driver rating in the last two.
Since sweeping both races in 2006, he has also compiled more than 1,200 laps out front.
It’s truly remarkable to see numbers like that for a single driver at a single track. No two races at one track are further separated in a season more than Phoenix, which holds the fourth and 35th races of the year. To continue the pace at opposite ends of the year in two completely different styles of mindset only beefs up the success.
If there is one thing that could be against the No. 4 driver, it’s the fact he isn’t in a must-win setting. In times of despair and desperation, the 39-year-old and crew chief Rodney Childers have clearly excelled toward proving the doubters wrong and gulping Budweiser in Victory Lane.
Sitting seven points to the good in the Chase standings, Harvick does not have to win, and that could somehow ease the drive for Harvick on Sunday. Now, a week’s worth of buzz and splash entering his best track could very well overpower that lack of a winning necessity.
2. How will the Final Four be impacted in the desert?
Putting my crystal ball to the side, I will retreat to sturdy statistics to decide who holds the best chance at moving on to the Championship 4 in Homestead.
The current three Chasers advancing behind an already-clinched Jeff Gordon are Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. And as already mentioned, Harvick is better at Phoenix than Tim Richmond was at being cool.
The clinch scenarios are pretty cut-and-dry for the man going for five straight Phoenix wins. Behind winning, a second place will guarantee him a shot, while a top-five finish will require one or the most laps led to be safe.
The Furniture Row Racing man of Truex has no Phoenix victories and just one top five, coming six years ago – the very race he won a pole.
I have found it hard to call Truex an underdog throughout the 2015 season. Sure, he drives for a once-backmarker team that has just two wins to its record, but he joined rare air early this season when he had seven top 10s to start the year and has been 15th or better through each race of the Chase.
Phoenix may not be the best place for the 35-year-old, but his consistency has proven to be of higher importance up to this point.
Meanwhile, Busch grabbed career win No. 2 when he was a rookie here in 2005. Since then, almost everything has changed: Track layout, team switches, Chase formats, generation of cars, etc.
For me, the biggest change since then has been the rise of maturity and level of experience for Busch. We have continued to witness a stellar comeback story from Busch, who has outperformed all expectations to win four races toward making the top 30 in points weeks in advance to the Chase. That’s the experience side.
The maturity side was almost breached at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first race of the Contender Round, where he crashed with Kyle Larson onto pit road leading to a 20th-place finish.
The day ended with nearly expected problems and frustration from Busch, who exposed his fizzle to the point I thought he may have been done there and then. With this Chase, you must be mentally prepared for every race.
However, the 30-year-old went to his worst racetrack of the year at Kansas Speedway to grab a top-five result. An 11th-place at Talladega advanced him through and set him up for a fantastic Eliminator Round with back-to-back top fives at Martinsville and Texas coming into Phoenix.
With one prior win, Busch has, at times, showcased great speed at Phoenix. In 2012, Busch won the pole and led 237 laps before losing the race to, you guessed it, Harvick. In 20 starts, Busch has more than half (12) in the top 10.
With maturity and experience joining Busch, I believe he will jump at that championship race.
3. Who does what on the final lap?
Once you raise the stakes, people tend to do things they wouldn’t even think of under normal circumstances.
I’m not going to sit here and predict what will go down on the final lap on Sunday. However, it sure does get you thinking when you look at the intensified desperation we have seen in past Elimination Round races. On the final lap of last year’s Phoenix race, Ryan Newman door-slammed Larson for that one extra point he needed to have a shot at his first championship.
Even this year, we saw Harvick, whether it was done with intent or not, do what he had to do at Talladega to advance. Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove with both hands and feet on the steering wheel at Dover to pass and hold off Jamie McMurray to keep his advancement alive.
Each situation was taken much differently by those behind the wheel.
That’s where it becomes a guessing game for me. When I think of classy racecar drivers, I think of Jimmie Johnson, McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Truex; three of whom are stand in hot and sticky situations heading to the desert.
Now, they could surprise me. Absolutely. I’m sure they have never been in a situation quite like this where they must complete A or B to see C come to fruition.
Joey Logano, unlike six others, doesn’t have that Plan B to fall back on.
The 25-year-old with the black hat proudly on his head nowadays has had a tough couple weeks. Who would’ve thought the guy with three straight wins could now be in the worst spot in the championship picture.
The question swarming NASCAR nation this week has been if the drivers at stake will be willing to break the driver’s code to advance to Homestead. If you think they won’t, just remember Tony Stewart said he’d wreck his grandma to win the Sprint Cup title, and he’s a three-time champ.
4. Can Erik Jones end his 2015 campaign with a Sprint Cup Series victory?
Who would have thought after two year,s the possibility of a teenager evolving from a Truck Series newbie-turned-championship contender while in one of the quickest seats in the Sprint Cup Series could be a reality?
For the third time in a highly successful 2015 season for Erik Jones, he was tapped to fill a seat at Joe Gibbs Racing. Each time, Jones has collected track time and has benefited from the early experience.
This weekend at Phoenix will give Jones one last shot in 2015 driving the No. 20 Toyota as Matt Kenseth caps off his two-week suspension before he returns for Homestead.
There is only so much to say about Jones that hasn’t been said before. He did a rare thing in today’s sport as he earned his opportunity solely by driving around Busch in the Snowball Derby in 2012. In such a prestigious short-track event, Busch put his butt in a Truck – even though if you flipped the 16-year-old upside down and gave him a shake, only about 10 cents would fall out his pockets – and watched him grow anyway.
This year especially, we have witnessed Jones go through crucial pains and practice. On the Truck Series side, the early season rounds showcased two things from Jones: His tenacious presence at the front of the field and his reactions to the blunders of defeat.
Jump ahead to this week, and he is hot off a third win at Texas Motor Speedway and has two races between him and a national NASCAR crown.
If that isn’t enough, Jones has one more shot in a Sprint Cup ride this year at a track he has already won at twice. Still shaking from becoming the youngest driver to complete a tripleheader weekend at Texas, Jones should be a favorite to grab the attention of those who have been asleep for the past two years.