Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Final Homestead Slot Still Up For Grabs
Five into one doesn’t go. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that much.
Yet that’s the exact situation at Phoenix Raceway this weekend, where five drivers are competing for the final slot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
By virtue of winning races earlier in this round of the playoffs Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are already locked into the title battle, as is Martin Truex Jr., who has amassed enough points to get to Homestead.
Those three drivers are set.
The final spot?
That’s up for grabs and five hungry drivers want it.
Heading into Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski is hanging on to fourth place, 19 points ahead of Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Also in the mix are Ryan Blaney (-22), Chase Elliott (-49) and Jimmie Johnson (-51).
To make the final, Elliott or his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and seven-time Cup champion Johnson absolutely have to win on Sunday at Phoenix. No question about it.
A win at Phoenix would lock Blaney or Hamlin in, although either of those two drivers could advance if they have great races on Sunday and Keselowski has a problem.
But here’s where the plot thickens: Friday at Phoenix, Blaney put the Wood Brothers Racing Ford on the pole, with Hamlin qualifying second and Elliott fourth in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Keselowski, meanwhile, qualified 16th, worst of any of the eight playoff drivers and four spots behind Johnson.
So with three of the four guys needing to win qualifying in the top four spots and the guy on the bubble — Keselowski — qualifying poorly, Sunday figures to be a wide-open affair in the Arizona desert. And the drivers all know it.
“Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole my mindset doesn’t change,” said Blaney, who this year made the playoffs for the first time. “I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal.”
“We’re knocking on the door,” said Hamlin, who has won at Phoenix before. “We’re fast. We’re doing everything we need to do to put pressure on the other guys and try to get a win. Our car is obviously fast enough, just got to tune it in (Saturday) and get this thing going for 500K (kilometers) or something like that.”
Faced with a must-win situation, Elliott might have the biggest challenge of all.
“Our task at hand is pretty simple, we have to win the race to move on next week, everybody in here knows that,” he said. “We know that and we are going to try to attack the weekend as best we can. Hopefully, give ourselves a chance to do that Sunday afternoon and see what happens.”
As for the bubble driver, he’s curious about how the race will play out, too.
“Qualifying here hasn’t been my greatest here as of late, so we’ll just kind of do what we can for Sunday,” said Keselowski, the 2012 champion.
This much is for certain: The battle for the final Homestead slot is still very much up in the air and we won’t know until the checkered flag falls who’ll step up and grab it.