AVONDALE, Ariz. — It could be feast or famine for three organizations trying to advance their drivers into NASCAR’s championship race.
Only Jeff Gordon has locked up his spot in next week’s title-deciding race, and three spots are up for grabs Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. There’s seven drivers jockeying for those berths, and that group includes three sets of teammates.
If Kevin Harvick makes it, Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch could miss the cut.
Same goes for Kyle Busch. Should he make the final four, Joe Gibbs Racing will likely fail to advance Carl Edwards.
And the maddening issue at Team Penske? Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski came oh-so-close to clinching spots in the finale, but are instead on the outside desperately looking in. There’s a strong possibility neither advances past Sunday’s race, and if one does, it almost certainly will be at the expense of his teammate.
So how do the six drivers juggle what’s best for their own team with achieving maximum results for their organization on Sunday?
“Once we get out on the racetrack, it’s every man for himself,” Edwards said.
A win by one of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship drivers on Sunday at Phoenix earns an automatic berth into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon earned his spot by winning at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago, but that victory likely was going to Logano before he was wrecked while leading.
The accident was deliberate payback from Matt Kenseth, who was fuming for two weeks over being wrecked by Logano while racing for a win Kenseth needed to stay in the Chase. Eliminated from contention, Kenseth retaliated and potentially ruined Logano’s title chances.
Logano had a tire problem last week at Texas and goes into Sunday ranked last in the eight-driver field. He knows he needs to win Phoenix to make it to Homestead.
“At this point of our season it’s no secret – it’s not about a top-10 here, it’s about a win and nothing less,” Logano said. “If we win this weekend, it’s the biggest win of the year up to this point. Obviously, the Daytona 500 is a big win, but winning here at Phoenix, what it would do to set us up for racing for a championship at Homestead would be the biggest one of the year.”
But that win would come at the expense of Keselowski, who dominated Texas last week but saw his berth into the finale snatched away by Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of the race. Johnson had already been eliminated from the playoffs, and in blocking Keselowski’s path to Homestead, he potentially helped Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon by keeping a strong contender from the final four.
It’s not mathematically impossible for both Penske cars to make it to Homestead, but it’s highly unlikely because of the misfortune that would have to befall other drivers.
After a mediocre qualifying effort from both Penske drivers at Phoenix, Keselowski didn’t seem thrilled with the task at hand. But he wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a storybook ending: Keselowski staved off elimination a year ago by winning at Talladega.
“We’ve been in this situation before. There is no normal, but I wouldn’t say it’s out of bounds, either,” he said, shrugging.
With so much on the line Sunday, drivers are trying to focus only on what they can control.
At Stewart-Haas Racing, the organization feels good about reigning champion Harvick’s chances. Harvick has won four consecutive races at Phoenix and five of the last six. He’s also third in the standings and in position to make it to Homestead on points should he fail to win.
But teammate Kurt Busch is seventh in the standings and probably needs to beat Harvick to make the finale. They can work together in team debriefs, but come Sunday, they’ll be racing against each other.
“For Kevin, he has his agenda and for us, we have our agenda,” Busch said. “The perfect day for Stewart-Haas Racing would be for the 41 car (Busch) to win and for Kevin Harvick to finish second. That would allow both of us to advance to the championship round at Homestead. We hope we are in that position.”
It will be difficult for an organization to place two cars in the finale, but it won’t be impossible. As three teams try to pull it off, Edwards noted it’s made for an interesting dynamic in the garage area.
“I think it’s fun, but I do think it’s interesting to watch how everyone responds to the pressure,” Edwards said. “Even the pit crew members, the crew chiefs, the drivers, everyone – it’s intense. Every pit stop matters, every restart matters, qualifying is important. You can’t have any mistakes.”