Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Back Denny Hamlin into a corner, and he’ll roll right over. Before now, that was a common assessment of the veteran driver and not entirely unfounded. In 2010, Hamlin finished a career-high second in points, but he entered the last race of that year with the point lead. All he had to do was keep Jimmie Johnson at a reasonable distance and he’d win. Under the playoff rules of the time and the Latford point system that was then in play, Hamlin could have finished a spot or two behind Johnson and come away with the title. He ended up 39 points in the hole and hasn’t been able to make a serious title run since. In other words, he choked, and closing the deal has been a serious issue for him.
But that changed Sunday. Hamlin was backed firmly into a corner, entering the week 20 points below the cut after a crash last week at Texas Motor Speedway. Instead of tucking his tail and taking his lumps this week, Hamlin came roaring back with a convincing win, handily beating a teammate with the reputation for taking races like this one. That makes Hamlin, who has six wins on the year, look like a closer, and he’ll need to close like never before next week. Hamlin will turn 39 the day after the final race and doesn’t have forever to win one anymore. He should be a Hall of Fame lock on wins alone, but a title would seal him as a first-ballot entry.
Erik Jones made an early exit from this year’s playoffs, but Sunday, he was the best finisher outside the Round of 8, securing a quiet but menacing seventh after procuring a top-10 start as well. It’s his fourth top 10 in seven races at ISM Raceway. Jones won twice in Phoenix in a truck as well. He’s become a more consistent driver this year with experience and will enter 2020 on solid footing as a playoff contender if he plays his cards right.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Is ISM Raceway the right call for the title race next year? While there were some compelling moments in this weekend’s races, including a knock-down-drag-out battle for second-place stage points between Hamlin and Chase Elliott before a later cut tire ended Elliott’s day and playoffs. Restarts produced five- and six-wide racing, but it didn’t last more than a lap or two.
Was it better than what we’ve seen at Homestead-Miami Speedway? Certainly not consistently enough to make it a clear choice. Now, with the title on the line, there will be four drivers going at it tooth and nail next year, and that will make a difference. But a big difference? That’s hard to say.
The problem is, with the length of NASCAR’s season, there are few tracks where the weather is conducive to fans sitting in the stands for hours in November. In a perfect world, the last four races would be at the Charlotte ROVAL, Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway in about any order. But temperatures in those areas can be very cold in November.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter and spring ISM winner Kyle Busch was looking to snap a now-21-race winless streak Sunday, and he certainly looked like he could end the drought early on, showing speed in practices and winning the pole. Busch led the first 69 laps Sunday in convincing fashion, but he would not see the lead again after that. A four-tire call with only a handful of laps left put Hamlin square in his sights, but Busch couldn’t get close enough to his teammate to make a move in the final laps, even with twice the fresh rubber. Busch finished second and will move on to Homestead, which would be quite a place to snap the streak.
All-time Phoenix win leader Kevin Harvick entered the weekend with momentum after winning in Texas last week, but this week was uncharacteristic for Harvick. While he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at ISM since 2013, his last win came four races ago, in the spring of 2018. And Harvick hasn’t led a lap at ISM this season. His fifth-place finish is nothing to sneeze at, but is his dominance a thing of the past?
Defending Cup champion Joey Logano did a lot of things right on Sunday, and under most scenarios, his ninth-place finish would have been plenty to ensure him a shot being the first repeat champion in almost a decade. He led 93 laps on the day and won stage two and all the points that came with it, but Hamlin’s win left him outside of the title race by seven points to Kyle Busch, who took the last spot on points.
When… was the moment of truth?
Hamlin’s heart must have dropped to his feet when the caution flew for John Hunter Nemechek’s incident with just eight laps to go, erasing what likely would have been an insurmountable lead for Hamlin. Restarts at ISM are wild, and while Hamlin avoided one bullet when all the leaders pitted for tires, he couldn’t avoid Ryan Blaney to his inside on the restart, also in a must-win situation, or a hungry Kyle Busch on four fresh tires to Hamlin’s two in third, anxious to break what is, for Busch, a long winless streak.
Sure enough, Blaney, Busch and a slew of others dove to the inside to try and make something happen. Any miscue by Hamlin would likely have ended his playoffs.
It’s certainly happened before: the caution flies late and the leader sees his race slip away. It happened at Homestead last year, giving Logano one last chance at the title. This time, though, Hamlin’s team made exactly the right call and Hamlin made exactly the right moves. Logano ended up being the one stung this time.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
In a matter of days, it’ll all be over, the engines quiet for the long winter ahead. That means the focus is on the title. Fans are guaranteed that there will not be a repeat champion with Logano’s elimination in Phoenix. The last time a driver went back-to-back was 2009-10, when Johnson took the last two of his remarkable five-year title run.
Should Hamlin win, he’d be the sixth different driver to win a title in the last six years. He’d also put an exclamation point on Johnson’s career. Since Johnson won his first of seven championships in 2006, no other driver has won more than a single title. Of course, that also means that Martin Truex Jr., Harvick and Kyle Busch would love to end that.
The final shakedown also means that Harvick, Truex and Busch all make an appearance in the Championship 4 for the third year in a row. That’s not much variety. But before anyone complains about lack of unpredictability, if you take points at face value, they were also the three best drivers the least three years on season points. That’s how the final race should turn out, frankly, and the three best drivers for the last three years are in it, so the cream rose to the top in this case. Interestingly enough, the just-eliminated Logano holds the point lead under the full-season model, with Hamlin in fifth, a healthy 31 markers back. It’s hard to put much stock in this because teams strategize with the system they’re given, but it’s worth at least looking at the rundown.
How… does the Championship 4 break down?
Hamlin, Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch enter the final race on remarkably even ground. Truex has the most wins at seven, with Hamlin next with six and Harvick and Busch with four apiece. Hamlin’s 19 top fives are the most among the group, with Busch having the edge in top 10s. All four have an average finish of 10th or better. In other words, there is no favorite.
Hamlin and Harvick may have momentum on their sides with the most recent wins. Truex won the race before that. Busch hasn’t won since June, but his hunger makes him dangerous.
So far under the elimination playoff format, the champion has won at Homestead to take the title, and any of these four could well do that. Hamlin leads active drivers with two wins in Miami. Busch, Truex and Harvick all have one. But a win is not guaranteed. the whole rest of the field will be gunning to steal the thunder.
Sit back and enjoy the show, race fans. How it’ll turn out is anyone’s guess.