Update: Phoenix (Fall)
Three separate agendas rule the weekend. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick are locked into the Championship Four and have nothing to lose by racing for the win. That increases their value.
In all likelihood, the other five playoff contending drivers need to win to advance – although there are scenarios in which drivers can advance on points. They cannot afford to risk too much, and should be considered strong contenders to finish in the top 10.
And finally, the remainder of the field is racing for pride and the trophy. But since by and large they have not yet won, theyr represent outright gambles.
Chase Elliott went from being locked into the playoffs to sitting on the outside looking in when Denny Hamlin spun him from the lead in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway. He drew first blood in practice with the top speed in Friday’s session. Backing that up with a fourth in qualification, he has a good pit stall selection this week and that will help throughout Sunday afternoon. He was second fastest in Saturday morning’s session – and while he did not fare as well in Happy Hour, he was content with how his car drove. Winning is hard to predict, but Elliott should score a top-five.
Meanwhile, Harvick may have put himself in position to be called the favorite. He posted the sixth fastest speed in the final round of qualification and has a decent starting position for the Can Am 500. He has dominated this track in recent years before slipping out of the top five this spring. With the weight of making the finale off his shoulders, he is free to make the right calls in the pits to stay in the front of the pack. It is going to be difficult to overlook him this week.
Erik Jones is on the outside of the playoffs with absolutely nothing to lose. When rookies win, it elevates them to a completely different level and both he and Daniel Suarez are aware of that. Jones has two more chances to get that transformative victory, but he will need a long green flag run to accomplish that. Jones posted the quickest 10-lap average at 133.060 mph in Saturday morning’s session after rolling off the grid 11th.
Jimmie Johnson was quickest in Happy Hour at 133.549 mph. He was sixth fastest in that same session and that is important because it completed an upward path that he experienced throughout the weekend. Still in playoff contention for the moment, he is so far down in points that he is going to have to win in order to advance – but this is a team that has a reputation for pulling out miraculous wins. Johnson qualified for the playoffs on the strength of three wins, but he has not shown a lot of speed in race trim otherwise. The positive impact of his struggles is that his salary cap has fallen progressively, so he is not going to break the bank if a player is willing to take a risk on him.
Ryan Blaney won the pole for the Can Am 500 and that was an emotional victory. It told the field that he is a driver that will need to be reckoned with. Moreover, he is going to have the best pit selection this week and that will keep him with the leaders on every pit stop. He was not happy in either of Saturday’s sessions, however. He ended the morning session on the scales looking for balance. He posted only the 20th fastest speed in Happy Hour and there is a strong likelihood that he will lost place-differential points on Sunday.