It wasn’t quite the World Series finale between the Cubs and Indians, but last Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway had some Game 7 moments that would be familiar to Bill Murray and company.
Team seemingly out of the title hunt heading in? Check. Rain delay? Check. Breaking a playoff drought? Check.
Sort of. When Carl Edwards emerged victorious in the AAA Texas 500, he didn’t win the title, but he did punch his ticket to the season finale in Homestead. And he did it the only way he realistically could: by winning. Without his Fort Worth win, Edwards would unlikely be able to point his way into the Championship 4, and while he has won at Phoenix – the site of this week’s race – before, everybody expects Kevin Harvick to win and fill in the third automatic spot in the final round of the Chase.
Harvick, assuming he wins, would join Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and one other driver in Homestead as the four with a shot. It’s a solid lineup, but not one that many thought we’d see. With the season-long dominance of Edwards’ and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, it seemed plausible that all four Toyota drivers could advance to Homestead to battle for the Sprint Cup.
But Johnson won Martinsville, beating Edwards’ teammates in a race Busch thought he could snag if Hamlin would just let him by. Then, with only three spots available for four JGR drivers, many thought it would be Edwards, who had a tire issue relegate him to a sub-30th place finish, as the odd man out.
Then came Texas, and now it seems like only one other Gibbs driver will join the No. 19 team in the finale. Which driver has the best shot?
First, we need to whittle the field to two. It’s been obvious all year that of the four Gibbs drivers, Denny Hamlin has been the least flashy. Therefore, we’re eliminating Hamlin from the outset. So who between Kenseth and Busch has the best shot?
This might not be the pick you’d expect, given Hamlin’s relative strength at Phoenix and Busch’s solid Chase and desire to win back-to-back title. But Kenseth has been just as solid this Chase, posting equal numbers to Busch when it comes to top 10s – seven through eight races. And while Hamlin has a feel for Phoenix, he’s been just a tick behind his teammates all season.
In fact, the way Hamlin’s season has gone many assumed prior to Talladega that it would be Hamlin, not Toyota pseudo-teammate Martin Truex Jr., bowing out after the Round of 12. But an engine issue for Truex helped Hamlin advance, and he’s had a solid two races so far, finishing third and ninth. The issue isn’t Hamlin’s good runs, it’s that his teammates have been better by an average of three spots a race during the Chase.
Let’s not forget the history that could happen here. Kenseth wants to win the Chase, bad. After heartbreaks in 2013 and 2015, he’s determined to become the second driver to win a title under the old full-season points format and the current Chase format.
Kenseth, to many, looked like a legitimate championship threat last season and until a series of run-ins with Joey Logano derailed his Chase, could have been the only driver to keep pace with Harvick and Busch. In fact, he actually won a Chase race prior to the finale, something that Busch couldn’t boast and Harvick could only because of a dominating, come-from-below-the-cut-line win at Dover. Had that win not materialized, Happy wouldn’t have even been a threat for the title. Kenseth wants to bounce back from the disappointment of last season and prove he can be a title contender.
And while Kenseth won at Phoenix in 2002, he’s been solid the past two years on flat tracks in general. Kenseth’s 8.6 average finish in the last three Phoenix races is better than Busch’s 14 and Hamlin’s 11.3. In a sport where points are so tight and a position equals a point, Kenseth has the advantage.
This is all based on a lot of speculation. Some might argue that it will be no JGR drivers which advance save Edwards, and with the way the points are that could very well happen – third through sixth on the Chase grid are within two points of each other. Say Kurt Busch or Logano wins and Harvick runs second – that could be enough to keep Coach’s other three drivers out of the finale.
The best bet for team Gibbs to get not one, but two more drivers in is to have one of their drivers win and a second point his way in. Very possible – remember, everything is super close in the points. But unlikely given Harvick and Johnson’s track records at Phoenix. And if a non-Chaser wins? That could be either a godsend or an issue for JGR.
The only thing the team can count on is that, should it put that second entry into the Championship 4, it will be the one driver by Kenseth.
Kevin Harvick’s track record at Phoenix is remarkable. Darrell Waltrip was dominant at Bristol, Dale Earnhardt was dominant at Daytona and David Pearson conquered Darlington. Kevin Harvick and Phoenix should be added to that list. In his last nine starts at Phoenix Harvick has won six times and has finished 2nd twice. It has officially become Kevin Harvick’s playground.
I think Harvick will keep his streak alive this weekend and win again moving to the Championship round of the Chase for the third straight year. Of three remaining Joe Gibbs Racing drivers I think Kyle Busch is the one with the best chance to advance to the final round.
It’s easy to pick Kyle Busch, the defending Cup champion. Busch can win anytime and anywhere. With Busch running the XFINITY race this weekend, he will have extra track time on the track, which should bode well for him. Busch is one point ahead of Matt Kenseth and two points ahead of Denny Hamlin heading into Phoenix.
Kenseth is a great driver and is the biggest Joe Gibbs Racing threat to knock Busch out of the championship hunt. However, Busch seems to capitalize on the big races more than Kenseth has in the past. Also, Busch’s track record at Phoenix is slightly better than Kenseth’s. In 27 starts, Kenseth has just one victory and an average finish of 16.3. Busch’s average finish is 13.4 in 22 races at Phoenix with his lone win at the facility coming in 2005.
The other Joe Gibbs Racing driver is Denny Hamlin. Denny Hamlin has the best track record among the drivers at Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin won there in 2012 and has an average finish of 11. When you think of Denny Hamlin, Phoenix is his type of racetrack. Hamlin’s record on flat tracks has been remarkable. He’s won a lot of races at Pocono and New Hampshire. You can understand why someone would pick Hamlin to have the best run of all Joe Gibbs Racing drivers.
However, there is a reason I am staying away from Hamlin. While he is an extremely talented racecar driver but Hamlin seems to have a black cloud hanging over his head. It seems like every time Denny Hamlin is in a chance to capitalize something happens to that team that is out of their control. Also, Hamlin’s speeding penalties are a cause for concern. When you have a format like this one, where one race means so much, a speeding penalty is major issue. Losing track position at a place like Phoenix would be a disaster.
For that reason, I’m going to go with Kyle Busch. I think Busch has the momentum and has shown the ability to win the big race and win when he’s had to.