Avondale, AZ – Heading into this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, I felt that Brad Keselowski had the best chance to get the fourth and final spot in the Championship 4. After all, Keselowski led the next best driver by 19 points and I figured he’d be able to maintain that gap in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/MRN).
But, after qualifying as well as three practice sessions at the Phoenix Raceway, it looks like Keselowski may actually be in trouble.
Keselowski, qualified his No. 2 Ford 16th for Sunday’s race. In a trio of practices around the 1.022-mile track, the Team Penske driver was 17th, 21st and ninth respectively. On the 10-lap average chart, he was 10th and 13th respectively on Saturday.
What’s all that say?
He has a 10th-15th place car. With him starting 16th, getting stage points will be tough. If he does get any, it won’t be very much. He does have five top 10 finishes over his last seven Phoenix starts including a fifth place run in March. Right now, his car is worse.
Hamlin on the other hand, well he’s been stellar. He has eight top 10 finishes over his last 11 Phoenix starts himself and five straight top seven finishes on the season. On top of that, Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota looks like he’s going to be one of the cars to beat this weekend. Hamlin, has great short run speed, being third, fifth and eighth respectively in practice, but also good long-run speed with being third in final practice on the 10-lap average. On the even longer runs, he was best among all drivers.
Short run speed, long run speed and starting second in the race.
To me, Hamlin can get by Keselowski and advance to Homestead.
What about everyone else?
Ryan Blaney is 22 points out and is starting on the pole, but he doesn’t have very good speed in his No. 21 Ford on race setup. Blaney, was 20th and 10th respectively in racetrim and 12th on the 10-lap average chart. While he does have two top 10 finishes in three Phoenix starts, I just don’t like how his car is right now. He, like Keselowski, are in some trouble.
What about the Hendrick Motorsports cars?
Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson are in must-win situations and will start fourth and 12th respectively. In practice, Elliott was first, second and 17th on single laps, but 17th and 18th respectively in practice on Saturday on 10-lap averages. He is similar to Blaney.
Johnson, on the other hand, well he’s the complete opposite. The four time Phoenix winner was eighth, 14th and sixth respectively in practice and fourth and first on the 10-lap average chart.
The best cars are the ones that have already clinched spots to Homestead. Kyle Busch was fourth, sixth and second respectively in practice and third and second respectively on the 10-lap average chart. He will start his No. 18 Toyota eighth.
Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t had a top five at Phoenix since 2009 but was in the top five in all three practices (2nd, 4th, 4th), the 10-lap average chart (4th) and in qualifying (5th).
The best though may be Kevin Harvick. He won six races from 2012-2016 at Phoenix and had two runner-ups in two of the other three races in that time frame. He qualified 11th, but was quickest in both practices on Saturday and sixth on the 10-lap average chart.
To me, if I had to rank the eight playoff drivers right now it would be:
- Kevin Harvick
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Denny Hamlin
- Kyle Busch
- Jimmie Johnson
- Chase Elliott
- Ryan Blaney
- Brad Keselowski
If I had to predict who’s moving on now –