This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix International Raceway for the Can-Am 500; the penultimate race of the 2017 championship and the race that will decide who will fill the final spot in the championship four that will fight for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Phoenix International Raceway is a 1-mile tri-oval located in Avondale, Arizona. The oval features ten to eleven degrees of banking in turns one and two and eight to nine degrees of banking in turns three and four. The track is perhaps most well-known for the ‘dog-leg’ between turns two and three, where drivers can either follow the banked-circuit around the outside of the track or they can cut straight across the flat-infield to try and gain track position on drivers heading into turn three.
Phoenix hosted it’s first NASCAR Cup Series race in 1988. Alan Kulwicki was the first to take a trip to victory lane after winning the race in the #7 AK Racing Ford. In 2005, NASCAR added a second Phoenix race-date to the calendar in the Spring, with Kurt Busch winning the first Spring race for Roush Racing.
To date, forty-two races have been held at Phoenix International Raceway, with Kevin Harvick having won the most of those races after taking eight wins in Arizona. Hendrick Motorsports are the winningest team, with ten of the forty-two races having been won by their drivers, including Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last time out:
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced at Phoenix International Raceway back in March for the Camping World 500. Joey Logano took pole position for the race and went on to win the first stage, with Chase Elliott taking over the reigns for stage two.
The end of stage three and the subsequent overtime finish was what decided the race victory. For the final one-hundred laps, the race looked like it was Kyle Busch’s to lose. He had taken the lead on pit-road after a caution and had led comfortably since the following restart.
However, the race came undone for Busch when pole-sitter Logano slammed into the wall at turn one after his #22 Team Penske Ford suffered a brake failure. This brought out the caution and with just six laps remaining, an overtime finish was on the cars. Not only that but due to the drivers being near the end of the race, their tyres were nearing the end of their life and a decision would have to be made as to whether or not to pit for fresh rubber for the final two-lap sprint to the finish.
Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Martin Truex Jr, would elect not to pit for the final restart. The previous race-leader Kyle Busch would restart just behind Kyle Larson in fifth place. On the restart, Newman managed to pull-away well, with ensuing contact between Larson and Stenhouse allowing him to build a buffer for the final few miles.
With the gap too much for his rivals to run down in the short amount of time, Newman would manage to come from out of nowhere to win the race in the #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. The victory would end a 127-race long winless streak and would also earn him a spot in the 2017 playoffs; something that not many people would have predicted would happen so early on in the season.
Last weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, the AAA Texas 500, saw Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr join Kyle Busch in being locked into the championship four. Harvick earned his spot after beating Truex Jr in a late-race battle for the victory, with Truex Jr’s sheer number of playoff points that he has earned throughout the year meaning that he can no longer be pushed below the cutline.
This means that just one spot in the championship four remains for the five other drivers currently in playoff contention. As it stands, Brad Keselowski holds that spot in the #2 Team Penske Ford, holds that fourth and final spot with 4111 points and a nineteen-point advantage over Denny Hamlin; the fifth-placed driver and the first of four below the cutline.
Hamlin is just three points ahead of Ryan Blaney in the #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, with the two drivers perhaps being the only two who realistically can overturn Keselowski’s advantage to get into the championship four on points. This leaves Hendrick Motorsport team-mates Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson as the last two contenders. Elliott and Johnson are forty-nine and fifty-one points respectively behind Keselowski and are realistically in a must-win position if they want to make it to the championship four.
The driver with perhaps the best chance of making it to victory lane on Sunday is Kevin Harvick. With more wins than any other driver at Phoenix, as well as having all the momentum and confidence having won last week at Texas, he has no pressure on him this weekend thanks to already being locked in. All of this means that Harvick could be a serious contender for the win on Sunday if Stewart-Haas Racing can give him a quick #4 Ford Fusion.
Kyle Busch is in a similar no-pressure situation to Harvick. He’s already confirmed of a spot in the championship four having won two weeks ago at Martinsville. Had it not been for the late-race caution back in March, he would’ve completed his dominating stage three performance to win at the Arizona race-track. There’s every chance that his #18 Joe Gibbs Racing team could put him in position to lead a lot of laps again on Sunday.
Of the playoff contenders not currently locked in, the driver arguably with the best chance of taking the win is Chase Elliott. The #24 Hendrick Motorsports team and driver have been fast throughout the playoffs so far, with the only problem being their lack of luck. For example, Elliott was on course to take his first ever win and a championship four spot at Martinsville until the late-race controversy with Denny Hamlin. Again, Elliott’s #24 showed great pace last week at Texas, but he was forced to start at the rear of the field after failing pre-qualifying technical inspection. Elliott led a number of laps and took the stage two win at Phoenix back in March, if luck is on his side and he has the car underneath him, Elliott could very well get to victory lane and fight for a championship against all the adversity he has faced thus far in 2017.
Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Phoenix International Raceway will be televised by Premier Sports, NBCSN, NBC and the NBC Sports App this weekend. First practice and Coors Light Pole qualifying will take place on Friday ahead of two further practice sessions on Saturday. The Can-Am 500 will take place on Sunday afternoon.