Avondale, AZ – Realistically, just two of the five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers that are going for the fourth and final Championship 4 spot for next weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway can make it in on points. Currently, Brad Keselowski leads Denny Hamlin by 19 points for that coveted position in the playoff standings. Ryan Blaney (-22), Chase Elliiott (-49) and Jimmie Johnson (-51) are likely too far out to points their way in.
But, Keselowski vs. Hamlin will be the biggest battle to watch in this weekend’s Can-Am 500 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/MRN). In all actuality though, that battle began on Friday morning.
Yes, stage points in Sunday’s race are relevant to Friday, and here’s why. In order to get stage points in both stages, you arguably have to qualify up front. The race at Phoenix is short, 312 laps in fact, so the first stage is only 75 Laps. With Phoenix being only 1.022-miles in length and not being big enough to pass a lot of cars in a short amount of time, if any of the five playoff drivers going for that final spot start outside of the top 15, they could be in some trouble in regards to stage points in the first stage.
That means practicing well on Friday morning and qualifying well later on in the day could really shape how these drivers race the race on Sunday. For Hamlin, he says that’s the way they’re treating things.
Hamlin said that while they have a car that could win on Sunday that he still believes that they can make it to Homestead on points alone. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver noted in his media availability on Friday afternoon that he scored 15 more points than Keselowski last weekend in Texas and he only finished two spots better than him in the race itself.
With being 19 points down, he feels like with what happened last weekend at Texas could happen again this weekend at Phoenix. But, who’s to say Keselowski will have a problem on Sunday like he did last weekend at Texas on Lap 1? Who’s to say that Keselowski will have a problem like Kyle Larson did in the opening stage in the Round of 12 finale at Kansas? While Keselowski scored max stage points (20) by virtue of winning each stage at Martinsville two weeks ago and finished fourth, he also scored zero stage points last weekend at Texas and finished fifth.
Hamlin, scored just one stage point at Martinsville and finished seventh. At Texas, Hamlin had 13 stage points and finished third. While both have been in the top 10 in both races, each have lacked in stage points in one of the two races too.
That’s why Hamlin is saying that he can still make it in on points alone. But, he’s also not banking on it. He said how he runs his race will be determined once the first stage ends. At that point he will know how many points he’s down to Keselowski. If both finish in the top 10 in Stage 1 and close together at that, Hamlin then knows he needs to just go for the win. If Keselowski is outside the top 10, game on.
Through three practice sessions and qualifying, it appears that Hamlin could be right. He’s got a very good short run as well as good long run car too. Hamlin was third, fifth and eighth respectively in the three practices to go along with being third on the 10-lap average chart. He will start second on Sunday.
He was 17th, 21st and ninth respectively in practice and 10th and 13th on Saturday on the 10-lap average chart. He will roll off 16th.