The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff finally has some serious drama on its hands heading into Sunday's Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona.
A rather ho-hum elimination process to this point went out the window a week ago, where Kevin Harvick claimed a checkered flag to get back on track—only to have NASCAR strip him of the automatic bid to the finale due to penalties.
In other words, only one man has a guaranteed bid to the next round, though several have nice point cushions. But it makes the final elimination race more interesting than it has any right being, though the track does feature a relocated finish line.
Here's everything to know about the final race before everything goes up for grabs at Homestead, Miami.
Where: ISM Raceway
When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live
1. Kevin Harvick (4)
2. Chase Elliott (9)
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17)
4. Ryan Blaney (12)
5. Alex Bowman (88)
6. Kyle Busch (18)
7. Erik Jones (20)
8. Kyle Larson (42)
9. Joey Logano (22)
10. Denny Hamlin (11)
Full qualifying results available on NASCAR.com.
2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Joey Logano||4119|
|2. Kyle Busch||4128|
|3. Martin Truex Jr.||4125|
|4. Kevin Harvick||4103|
|5. Kurt Busch||4100|
|6. Chase Elliott||4086|
|7. Aric Almirola||4068|
|8. Clint Bowyer||4052|
|9. Ryan Blaney||2263|
|10. Brad Keselowski||2259|
|11. Denny Hamlin||2220|
|12. Kyle Larson||2215|
|13. Jimmie Johnson||2195|
|14. Alex Bowman||2187|
|15. Erik Jones||2184|
|16. Austin Dillon||2184|
Drivers to Watch
Joey Logano is the only driver with an automatic bid through two races in the current stage.
Logano won a rather boring race in Martinsville, Virginia, at least compared to the wild events that came after it. Then again, Logano seizing the checkered flag was considered a bit controversial at the time because he bumped Martin Truex Jr. at the end before winning.
Logano added to his potential enemies list the next time out, with some drivers taking offense to the way he approached Texas:
Controversial or not, Logano has now posted a top-10 performance in six races and counting, which isn't bad for a guy who only won a single race during the regular season.
Still, Logano seems to have a target on his back entering the final two races, which could only up the degree of difficulty for him in terms of winning it all. As always, it makes the No. 22 Ford one to watch over the weekend for a handful of different reasons.
Chase Elliott is a good example of how quickly things can change for drivers on a week-to-week basis in the playoffs.
Elliott is some of the new blood making serious noise this late in the year, but he has quickly gone from winning at Kansas to falling out of a good point standing with finishes of seventh and sixth over his last two outings.
So goes the margin of error when racing the top names in the sport, where a top-10 finish can send a driver down the leaderboard in points as opposed to up. Still, Elliott isn't shy about liking the track in Phoenix better than the one in Texas a week ago.
"I feel better about Phoenix than I did about today, for sure," Elliott said, according to NBC Sports' Dan Beaver (h/t Yahoo.com). "I mean, I don’t know till we get there. Yeah, tough spot to be in. But ultimately you got to be in a must-win situation at Homestead if you ever make it down there, so you might as well get used to it and like it."
It's a good sign for Elliott fans, who have seen him win twice over three playoff races as recently as mid-October. He finished third at this track earlier in the season. If he can find a different gear in a tiny pool of the remaining elite drivers, he could flip what was a routine season run by the familiar faces into a storybook ending for the next wave of drivers.
Harvick finally seemed to have broken free of a poor-looking run of races by his own standards, hitting Victory Lane with 177 laps led at Texas after three consecutive performances of 10th or worse.
Then the news came down Wednesday: NASCAR penalized Harvick and his team for having a "manufactured spoiler designed to offset to the right, evading NASCAR rules and helping the car aerodynamically," according to ESPN.com's Bob Pockrass.
Due to the infractions found on the race-winning car, NASCAR stripped Harvick of the automatic bid and 40 points, with crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith also handed suspensions.
The punishment leaves Harvick just a handful of points above the rest of the field in the final cutoff spot, and it is great news for guys like Kurt Busch and Elliott.
What's not so great news for them? Phoenix is one of Harvick's best tracks anyway, as he has nine wins there and one this season already.
He's now in a do-or-die situation at a place he's dominant at, which makes for some must-see television even if the circumstances that created the scenario weren't ideal for anyone.
An eight-time winner this year, Harvick is hardly clinging to a playoff spot after a polarizing ruling from the sport, which makes him the headline act of an event at Phoenix once again—fittingly as he starts from pole position.