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WAID’S WORLD: Phoenix Could Provide Surprises In Final Championship Lineup

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OK, here’s the situation as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season moves to Phoenix, the last playoff race before the championship round at Homestead:

Actually, it’s not all that surprising.

Three drivers have qualified for the championship that will be decided among four competitors in two weeks.

In the round of eight the first to make it was Kyle Busch, who won at Martinsville. Kevin Harvick was next with his victory at Texas. Also at Texas, Martin Truex Jr. was assured the third spot because of his No. 1 ranking in points.

Do you detect any surprises? Didn’t think so.

These three drivers are proven championship commodities so it doesn’t challenge reality that they are once again in a title hunt.

In fact, Busch won the championship in 2014 – the season in which Harvick finished second. A year later Harvick reigned as champion.

Truex Jr.’s best points finish was fourth in 2015. However, in 2017 he’s been steadfast at No. 1 since the 18th race of the year at Kentucky. Additionally, he’s won seven races, more than any other competitor.

Folks have pegged him as a certain championship contender – and the likely favorite at Homestead – for the vast majority of the season.

So it has evolved that three championship contenders are two who, since 2014, have won titles and another who has clearly been dominant this season.

Really, now – should we be surprised? No one is raising an eyebrow over this lineup.

But there’s a chance more than a few brows will be lifted after Phoenix.

The outcome of that race could provide us with the unexpected. After all, among the eight contenders a winner is in with no questions asked. At this point, given what’s happened this year, we might well have an idea who that could be.

Ah, but do we know for certain? Not by any means and that is exactly what makes Phoenix an intriguing event.

Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin seem to have the best chances at entry via points. Keselowski is fourth in the standings, 57 behind Truex Jr. while Hamlin is fifth, 19 behind Keselowski.

Of course a Phoenix victory for either of them makes points a moot issue. And if Hamlin wins, well, given how the fans have expressed their dislike after Martinsville, he’s not going to receive rousing cheers.

That aside, it is pretty much a given that others are going to have to win at Phoenix to become part of the championship foursome.

There are, possibly, some very interesting scenarios that could be played out at Phoenix:

—- If Ryan Blaney wins he will put the vaunted Wood Brothers team in a position to win a first title in its 50-plus year history. For decades the team never competed on the full schedule, opting instead to run for higher purses in superspeedway races.

—- I think it’s pretty much a given that everyone wants to see Chase Elliott win his first race with Hendrick Motorsports. He’s come close several times, including Martinsville, where Hamlin’s shove sent him into a spin and out of the lead.

—-I agree with the belief there are plenty of fans that do not want to see Jimmie Johnson have a shot at a record-setting eighth championship. They don’t care to watch him eclipse either Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt. But a victory does assure Johnson of the opportunity to make NASCAR history – like it or not.

There are other drivers who won’t make the championship round even if they win. But a victory by any of them would be, for most fans, a pleasant surprise indeed.

—- Matt Kenseth as told us he’s going to take a break from NASCAR starting in 2018. The veteran, champion driver will be missed. But if he wins at Phoenix, he’ll go out in style.

—- Joey Logano is not in the title hunt because his victory this spring at Richmond was termed “encumbered” – that means “doesn’t count” – by NASCAR due to a rules infraction. He’s been trying hard to win ever since. If it happens at Phoenix, it will serve as a measure of redemption.

—- This will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race at Phoenix. This is his last season as a full-time NASCAR competitor as he moves into retirement. Do I really have to tell you what the reaction will be if the sanctioning body’s Most Popular Driver wins for the first time since 2015? Heck, it would be the same if he wins at Homestead. Great stuff. I’m not sure even Hollywood would buy the story.

Certainly there are more potentially surprising scenarios. And, yes, there are those that will be mundane. Nevertheless, the Phoenix race deserves our utmost attention.

I’m thinking it will get it.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

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Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.