With Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick locked into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on wins and Martin Truex Jr. on points, just one spot is up for grabs at Phoenix International Raceway. Brad Keselowski has a substantial 19-point cushion, but will he make the cut, or will Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott or Jimmie Johnson pull off a shocker to set the field?
Bryan Gable: Brad Keselowski is likely to advance. As long as Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott or Jimmie Johnson does not win, Keselowski can reach the final round if he has a decent race. Hamlin will be his biggest threat, but making up 19 points within one race is not an easy feat when the competition is so close. Blaney and Elliott have been impressive throughout the playoffs; however, their lack of experience in championship battles like this one make them hard to trust. Johnson has the opposite problem; the No. 48 team has usually thrived this time of year, but Johnson has been struggling at even his best tracks. Keselowski’s points advantage gives him a big leg up on the competition, one that should help him reach Homestead.
Wesley Coburn: Kevin Harvick would be the spoiler since it’s Phoenix, but he won last week. So given Keselowski’s lead in the standings and his tendency to pick up stage points, he should be the final driver racing for the title next weekend. Three former champions trying to win a title, and somehow the one guy without a championship is the favorite.
Amy Henderson: For someone other than Keselowski to make the cut on points, they’d have to beat Keselowski by 20 positions, meaning Keselowski would have to have a really bad day. Possible but unlikely, leaving a win as the only hope for the other four—something none of them have done consistently this season. Hamlin’s the most likely to sneak one in, because he has the best equipment of the four. If you think equipment isn’t important, look at Johnson; he has more Phoenix wins then Keselowski, Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have combined, but he’s not really a threat because he doesn’t have the car to back up his skill. Sure, we might see that game seven moment NASCAR likes to talk about, but it’s more likely nothing will change Sunday.
Mark Howell: Either Keselowski or Hamlin have the most legitimate shot at winning this weekend and making the final four at Homestead, but you can’t ignore the magic of Johnson and the No. 48 team. Johnson and Chad Knaus have the ability to pull checkered flags out of their hats when they need them the most. This is one of those desperate weekends, so I’m thinking the time is right for NASCAR nation to be shocked. I’d love to see either Blaney or Elliott steal the show, but when the chips are down, bet on Johnson.
Stewart-Haas Racing made it official on Wednesday that Aric Almirola will replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 Ford. What should we expect in terms of performance from Almirola?
Michael Massie: Aric Almirola has actually won races to get where he is, so he should definitely do better than Danica Patrick. Almirola will do even better than he already does at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. He will move up in the standings, but he won’t be a serious title threat because he won’t be in a Toyota. Also, I’m still trying to figure out if he still has the competitive edge after that horrible wreck at Kansas Speedway; I know I wouldn’t.
Coburn: He’s never driven for a top-tier team in the Cup Series — Dale Earnhardt Inc. was dying before he moved to Richard Petty Motorsports, which has struggled — so it’s hard to say. On the other hand, big teams always have that one car that lags behind. That’s been SHR’s No. 10. He’ll still be a threat at restrictor plates but in the 15th-20th range most other places, with an occasional top-10 run. He’ll run slightly better than Patrick has and about the same as Clint Bowyer this year. His paint scheme looks cooler than what he’s currently driving, though.
Henderson: The thing about Almirola is that we don’t really know how good he is because he’s never had equipment to showcase it. If nothing else, he’s a step up for the team; he’s had some very strong finishes in lesser equipment at RPM, and he’s more consistent than Patrick.
Howell: I foresee great things from Almirola and Stewart-Haas next year. Granted, his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win was sort of a lucky break at Daytona, but at least he’s proven himself over the past decade in both the Camping World Truck and XFINITY series. It’s important to note that Almirola never brought cash to any of his rides, especially during his early days; he got to where he is by sheer talent, attitude and intelligence. He’s poised for greatness now that he’s with a well-structured operation like SHR.
Meanwhile, another veteran driver, Matt Kenseth, announced that he’ll step away from the sport after the season finale. What legacy does Kenseth leave behind?
Henderson: I really hope that Matt Kenseth will be remembered for more than that hit on Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway (though even the other answers here make me fear that will be the first thing people think of). He’s a surefire Hall-of-Famer with a full-season title and 38 wins, better numbers than some drivers already in. He was always that guy in races who you wouldn’t notice all day, wouldn’t garner a lot of notice on television, but get down to the closing laps and there he was, contending for the win. Kenseth is ultra-aggressive on the track, hilarious in the media center and a whole lot more than one less-than-stellar move.
Howell: Kenseth brings to mind the classic John Wayne film The Quiet Man. He always went about his business with an emphasis on achievement, hitching his wagon to consistency and solid performances more than to the cultivation of a larger-than-life public persona. Kenseth is a victim of the insanity we call NASCAR economics, but that certainly won’t keep him from being a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Gable: In terms of his driving ability, Kenseth has cemented his reputation as a smart and capable racer. He is perhaps the best driver of his generation at finding ways to get good finishes in tough circumstances. Behind the scenes, Kenseth will be remembered as a hands-on racer who could elevate the performance of everyone around him. Kenseth has never been one to seek attention or be flashy, which has led to him being underappreciated by some people in the sport. Yet Kenseth’s talent as a driver and good character have undoubtedly made NASCAR better.
Massie: Kenseth is Hall of Fame-worthy without a doubt. He’ll be remembered in the same way as drivers like Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison and the Labonte brothers. Jarrett and Allison were great but were overshadowed by Richard Petty and David Pearson. The Labontes are legends but played second fiddle behind Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Kenseth has played the same role to Johnson. People will talk about Johnson and then start talking about Kenseth. Also, Kenseth’s move on Logano at Martinsville will be a bright spot in history.
After their on-track and postrace tussles at Martinsville, fans expected firework between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin but didn’t get any at Texas. Meanwhile, at Texas, Ross Chastain and Brendan Gaughan had their own disagreement in the XFINITY Series. Should retaliation be expected in the sport, or are the days of an eye for an eye in the past?
Henderson: The landscape of the sport is different from 40 or 50 years ago, and that includes retaliation. Like it or not, it costs a lot more than back in the day, and the sponsors who pay the bills have a say in how drivers behave. But even without that, it’s silly to expect drivers to retaliate the next week, especially at a track where such a move would be dangerous. Phoenix might be a track where Elliott sees a better opportunity to extract payback, especially if he can guarantee Hamlin doesn’t make the cut for Homestead. If not, don’t look for it this season. It might happen sometime, but this isn’t Days of Thunder, and expecting it every week is not realistic. Brendan Gaughan and Ross Chastain don’t have anything to lose, so you may see some fireworks this weekend; seems like Gaughan’s not the only one who doesn’t like the way Chastain has raced him this year, so there is a possibility that it won’t come from where we expect, if we can really expect it at all.
Howell: Given today’s world of high-priced NASCAR competition, the era of an-eye-for-an-eye justice is over. Sponsor deals are few and far between, so it’d be foolhardy to alienate a precious financial backer by sucker-punching a competitor who did you wrong. Eddie Gossage tried to make a Texas-sized mountain out of the Martinsville molehill, but his efforts seemed to fall flat. Even the initial confrontation leading up to Elliott being named “the people’s choice” was lackluster; Elliott’s frustrated “You wrecked me!” to Denny was more heartbreaking than jaw-breaking. Physical beatings are still a facet of local short track action, but they’ve become antiquated in today’s big-money touring series culture.
Gable: We have not seen the end of the Hamlin/Elliott story. This weekend was just not the time for chapter two. Aside from David Gilliland’s dustup with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2008, Texas is not the place to settle scores on track. The situation between Gaughan and Chastain seemed to be the product of several weeks of frustration. Make no mistake, the golden rule of NASCAR is that I race you the way you race me. Payback has been a part of stock car racing since its beginnings, and it’s not going away any time soon.
Massie: I was all for Hamlin’s move on Elliott, and I am all for Elliott paying him back. In fact, I don’t know how Elliott can consider himself a man if he allows for Hamlin and others to run over top of him. You have to stand up for yourself for the other drivers to respect you and race you courteously. If that ever leaves NASCAR and if drivers aren’t allowed to pay others back, it is no longer the sport I grew up loving. The ratings were up this past weekend at Texas. Why? Because of the feuds from Martinsville. Fans love a good rivalry. My only critique is that if you do choose to retaliate, do it in a way that only wrecks the driver you are mad at and not other competitors that have nothing to do with it; that is not cool.
Coburn: Elliott didn’t wreck Hamlin at Texas because that could be deadly, given the speeds they run there. He’ll bide his time for a while before striking when the proper circumstances permit. Gaughan knows he won’t have much time to drive left, so he didn’t care if he ruffled feathers. Retaliation is still fully in effect, but it has more of an impact when it isn’t expected.