A week ago after the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the Championship Playoff picture was pretty clear. Joey Logano(22) and Kevin Harvick(4) were in with wins. Kyle Busch(18) and Martin Truex Jr,(78) we looking good on points. Kurt Busch(41) was sitting 25 points below the cut line for the Championship 4. Chase Elliott(9), Aric Almirola(10), and Clint Bowyer(14) all needed wins to advance to the final. My, how things can change in a week’s time.
Inspection and Penalties
Kevin Harvick’s winning Ford Fusion was taken to the NASCAR R&D center for inspection. A problem was discovered. The placement of the spoiler gave the car a handling advantage, especially in the turns. Watching Harvick’s car waste the field during the overtime green, white, checkers finish was enough to create suspicion.
NASCAR imposed upon the Stewart-Haas Racing driver and team their harshest of penalties. The win was declared encumbered. Meaning it no longer qualified Harvick to automatically advance to the finals in Homestead. His crew chief and car chief were suspended for this week and next week. He had 40 points deducted from his season-long total. Leaving him just 3 points ahead of the cut-line for the Championship 4.
In addition to placing Harvick in danger of elimination, the points penalty significantly improves Kurt Busch’s chances of advancement. It even brings Elliott back into the points conversation as he sits just 17 back of Harvick.
|Position||Car||Driver||Points vs Cut Line|
|1||22||Joey Logano||In With Win|
|3||78||Martin Truex Jr.||+25|
Phoenix is a track that Harvick favors and performs well at. The pressure of not being locked in and the uncertainty of the sport will all play on his mind today. Harvick won the pole for the Can-Am 500, but Elliott starts beside him on the front row when the green flag drops.
ISM Raceway is 1 mile in length. A total of 312 laps make up the 500-kilometer distance of the Can-Am 500. Stage 1 & 2 are 75 laps each. Leaving 162 laps in the final segment of the race.
The track has undergone a major revision since the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last visited in March. The start-finish line was moved to the middle of the dog-leg. In what used to be Turn 2. The track and apron are the widest at that point. Look for some wild racing on restarts and Stage finishes. Every point, thus every position today is critical.
In other Cup news, Joe Gibbs Racing(JGR) made official what everyone has suspected for some time. Martin Truex Jr. and his current crew chief Cole Pearn will join JGR next year. This makes Daniel Suarez a free agent at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
Truex Jr. and Pearn became available this summer when Barney Visser announced he was shutting down Furniture Row Racing. Last year’s Championship winning team.
Harvick drove off into Turn 1 with Elliott not far behind. Behind them, the scramble for positions was quick to develop. Five wide racing broke out as every jockeyed for an advantage. Harvick built over a half-second lead, but by Lap 20 Elliott had caught back up. Elliott put some pressure on Harvick as they both worked through lapped traffic. Ryan Blaney(12), Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin(11) rounded out the top 5.
Harvick led the first 72 laps of the race. A flat right front tire sent him to the pits and Elliott into the lead. The unexpected failure cost Harvick a Stage win and the bonus points that accompany it.
Stage 1 Results
Harvick’s dilemma significantly impacted the points race. Kurt Busch’s 7 Stage points moved him above the cut line tied with Truex Jr. Harvick, 1 lap down in 27th position now sits 39 points below the cut line in 6th position. Of course, all that changes if Elliott drops out of the lead.
Chase Elliott led the race off pit road with Kurt Busch in 2nd. Elliott led the race into Turn 1 on the restart. However, Kurt Busch quickly moved to the top spot. Harvick raced into the lucky dog position among the cars 1 lap down. Then to Harvick’s benefit, Logano blew a left rear tire, spun, and brought out the yellow flag. Returning Harvick to the lead lap.
Having just pitted at the end of Stage 1, the leaders stayed on the track. The top 5 consisted of Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney, Keselowski, and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. remained out of the top 10 back in 13th. Harvick, once again on the lead lap, restarted in 19th.
1st Man Out
On Lap 133 Clint Bowyer was running in 7th. Needing a win to advance, Bowyer was moving to the front. He blew a left rear tire and hit the wall down the backstretch. The damage was significant, ending Bowyers Championship run.
With just 17 laps to go in the Stage, the leaders pitted. Truex Jr. and Harvick, needing Stage points, stayed on the track. Kurt Busch passed the pace car entering pit road and was penalized 1 lap. Sending the playoff points battle into another shuffle.
Kyle Busch used the Bowyer caution to get 4 new tires. An aggressive move on the restart put him position to battle for the Stage win. He passed Harvick and then Truex Jr. to take the green and white checkered flag at the end of Stage 2.
Stage 2 Results
With Kyle Busch as the leader, Truex Jr. is 29 points above the cut line and Harvick sits 5 up on Elliott. Chase is currently the first driver below the cut line.
The Final Stage
Kyle Busch, once out front, easily paced the rest of the field. Busch led until Lap 225 when Elliott passed him. Busch began green flag pit stops, the next time around, on Lap 226. Many of the leaders began their pit stops including Kevin Harvick. On the track, Tanner Berryhill spun near the entrance to pit road and brought out the caution. Harvick was trapped 1 lap down. Kurt Busch, having not pitted yet, earned the lucky dog and returned to the lead lap.
Elliott pitted under caution, but he was caught speeding on pit road. After the penalty, Elliott restarted at the end of the lead lap. Harvick took the wave around during the caution to get back to the lead lap.
As the race restarted Keselowski led with Truex Jr. in second. Green flag racing did not last long, Harvick got into the back of David Ragan(38). Ragan spun bringing the yellow out again.
Restarting With 68 Laps to Go
A wild scramble on the restart with 68 laps to go sent the race and playoff battle into the mixing bowl. The race for the lead featured non-playoff contenders Keselowski, Kyle Larson(42), and Erik Jones(20) out front. Truex held down the 4th spot with Kurt Busch in 6th, Harvick 7th, Kyle Busch 8th, Chase Elliott 9th, and Aric Almirola(10) in 10th.
Just when it appeared things were set for a race to the finish, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.(17) blew a rear tire and crashed into the wall bringing out another caution. With 262 of the 312 laps completed, the question is who would pit and who would stay out.
With his Playoff life on the line, Kurt Busch opted to stay out. The rest of the contenders chose to pit for at least 2 fresh Goodyear tires. Race leader (Byron, Michigan native) Erik Jones will line up next to Kurt Busch. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson restart from the 2nd row. Keselowski restarts 5th and Harvick goes back to green in 6th.
After a brief red flag to clean up the Stenhouse Jr. mess, the race restarted with 44 laps to go. With the front of the pack racing 3 and 4-wide, disaster struck. Hamlin got loose and drove Kurt Busch into the wall out of Turn 2. They wrecked and Chase Elliott got caught up in the melee. The damage eliminated both Busch and Elliott from playoff contention.
Logano and the “Big 3” are virtually locked in. The only contender that can change the Championship 4 line-up is Aric Almirola(10). He restarts 7th.
Laps Winding Down
Kyle Busch led, Kyle Larson ran 2nd, Kevin Harvick 3rd and Almirola in 4th with 27 laps to go. Alex Bowman(88) spun in Turn 2 and the car caught fire. Bringing out the caution and ultimately the red flag for the 2nd time.
NASCAR lifted the red flag and displayed the caution. Kyle Larson pitted for what he thought was a loose wheel. The restart line-up is Kyle Busch and Harvick on the front row. Almirola lines up behind Busch as the green comes out with 20 laps to go.
Kyle Busch takes the lead and Almirola jumps ahead of Harvick. When Tanner Berryhill hits the wall again, bringing out the 12th caution of the day.
Almirola now lines up beside Kyle Busch, with Harvick in 3rd and Keselowski 4th. If Almirola wins, Busch knows it eliminates Harvick from the Championship. With 10 to go Kyle Busch is a second ahead of Keselowski in 2nd. Almirola runs 3rd. Knowing the history between Keselowski and Busch, Almirola’s only hope is they get together on the final lap.
Kyle Busch easily holds off Keselowski and takes the race win. Kyle Larson passes Almirola for 3rd. Harvick finishes 5th.
When it’s all settled on the track, the “Big 3” and Joey Logano will fight for the Championship at Homestead.
Who’s the Championship 4 Favorite
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are the odds-on favorites heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway. Either could hoist the trophy next Sunday evening. Truex Jr. may be the sentimental favorite as the Furniture Row Team is disbanding. Joey Logano will need a dominant performance to win. He may have to dodge the bumpers of everyone he has run over getting to the Finals.
It will be special. The Lasco Press will bring you all the action from the Championship Weekend live from South Florida. Check back next weekend for daily updates as the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Champion is crowned.
Results of the Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway
|14||78||Martin Truex Jr.||11.14||312|
|33||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||-50||262|
Championship 4 Contenders