The NASCAR season is down to just two remaining races, with the final event of the Eliminator Round set to take place Sunday at Phoenix.
Non-Chase driver Jimmie Johnson won last week at Texas and will go for back-to-back victories after taking the pole Friday. It’ll be the 34th time in Johnson’s 12 seasons that he’ll start first and the third time he’ll do so at Phoenix, according to Racing-Reference.info.
Chase driver Jeff Gordon topped the leaderboard after the first round but fell to sixth in the second stage and wound up in 11th in the final. Fellow Chase driver Kurt Busch lost the lead from Round 2 and will start second. Four Chase drivers will start among the top 10 at the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.
Here is a look at the top 25 from Friday's qualifying:
|Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500: Qualifying Results|
|Rank||Driver||Top Speed (mph)|
|3||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||142.580|
|5||Martin Truex Jr.*||142.292|
|19||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||140.944|
|*Chase driver; NASCAR.com|
After Johnson won last weekend at Texas, there are still three remaining spots for the one-race Championship Round at Homestead-Miami. Gordon is the only driver already in, having won at Martinsville, the first race of the current round.
Harvick is the favorite Sunday, with five victories in his last six races at Phoenix, including four straight. He could join Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip as the only drivers to win five in a row at the one-mile oval, according to Tom Jensen of Fox Sports.
By doing so, Harvick would qualify for the Championship Round, where he could become just the fourth driver in the last 25 years to win back-to-back titles, according to Racing-Reference.info. Only Dale Earnhardt (1990-91), Gordon (1997-98) and Johnson (2006-2010) have accomplished such a feat during that span.
Joey Logano, who has won a series-high six races, is hoping to salvage his season after dropping to last in the standings among the eight remaining drivers. The rapid descent came after he was wrecked by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville as payback for a skirmish at Kansas earlier in the Chase that dashed Kenseth’s title hopes.
Logano swept the Contender Round with three straight wins at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega, but Kenseth’s retaliation came after the points were reset for the Eliminator Round, leaving Logano’s hopes in doubt.
Under the old Chase format, in which standings were reset just once for the final 10 races, Logano would be in second, just 17 points behind Harvick, according to Jayski. Yet Logano still believes the new format is beneficial for the sport despite his misfortune, per Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
To advance, Logano must win at a track where he’s never visited Victory Lane. He’s tallied four straight top-10 finishes at Phoenix, but he hasn't finished higher than third in 13 tries since breaking into the Sprint Cup Series in 2009.
Ricky Craven of ESPN.com drew distinct parallels to Kevin Harvick’s late Chase troubles last year and suggested Logano's current state may merely be a setback:
Joey Logano is today where Kevin Harvick was a year ago. At the time, many questioned if Harvick was mentally tough enough to put the negative in the rearview mirror and channel all his attention toward executing a near perfect Phoenix. He was, and this race served as a catalyst to earning his first championship. Joey is capable of the same.
Should a non-Chase driver win again this week, the three remaining spots will be determined by points. Here is a look at the current standings:
|NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Standings|
|4||Martin Truex Jr.||4,076|
|*Qualified for Championship Round; NASCAR.com|
Phoenix isn’t the most exciting of tracks, given its average speeds, low banks and limited action—the past two races featured just eight lead changes. But NASCAR maintains there won’t be many, if any, alterations to the schedule through 2020, meaning this penultimate race will continue being a pivotal factor in determining a champion.