Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 Race Preview

The penultimate race of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season is upon us. Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will take place at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

That means this is another cutoff race. We know Martin Truex Jr. and will be racing for the championship next weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, but who will be joining them?

If any one of the other six playoff drivers can win Sunday’s race on the 1.015-mile Arizona oval, then they’ll get an automatic ticket to the final round too. That will leave just one spot available for a wildcard driver to make it on points.

How to Tune In

Coverage – 2:30 p.m. ET

TV – NBC

Radio – MRN

Distance – 312 Laps/502 kilometers

Stage Lengths – 75/75/162

Defending Race Winner – Kyle Busch

Playoffs – RD 3, Race 3

Track – ISM Raceway

Parity In Playoffs

While JGR has won four of the eight playoff races run during these playoffs, the parity is still high. Kevin Harvick became the fifth different driver from the fifth different team to win this postseason. Furthermore, since the final race of the opening round, we’ve had five different teams to have won the last seven races.

Chase Elliott with Hendrick Motorsports won on the ROVAL. Kyle Larson with Chip Ganassi Racing then won the next week at Dover. Ryan Blaney with Team Penske reached victory lane a week after that in Talladega. Denny Hamlin with Joe Gibbs Racing then won the Round of 12 cutoff race at Kansas. Martin Truex Jr. won the opening race of the Round of 8 at Martinsville with JGR while Harvick’s (SHR) win last weekend kept the historic streak going.

Who will win on Sunday? Kyle Busch has the be the favorite which would give us six straight different winners.

Who Makes It Onto Final 4?

With Martin Truex Jr’s win at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway two weeks ago and Kevin Harvick’s win last weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway, half of the spots into the Championship 4 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway are now taken. So, who joins that aforementioned duo in taking the final two spots?

We will find out on Sunday afternoon.

First off, Kyle Busch makes the most sense to take one spot. Since the track was reconfigured this time last year, Busch is undefeated. He won last November and then won the spring race at Phoenix this past March too. Plus, Busch has three top two finishes in-a-row on the desert race track and hasn’t finished worse than seventh in his last eight Phoenix starts overall. In fact, six of his last seven starts at the ISM Raceway have seen his No. 18 Toyota come home inside of the top five.

The problem for Busch is, he has to stave off everyone else. He’s +22 in the playoff standings we know one spot will advance to Homestead on points. While his past success in Phoenix has been good, it’s not like he’s been all that great on the season lately either. Busch, has only made it this far due to his past playoff points accumulated during the regular season. In the playoffs, the 2015 series champion has scored just four top 10 finishes in eight tries. He hasn’t won a race since June 2.

Kyle Larson can certainly steal a spot. He has to win Sunday’s race to likely get in. He’s -23 right now. Larson, was sixth back in the spring race and third in last year’s playoff race too. Also, Larson has four top six finishes in his last six Phoenix starts. The numbers favor an upset win by him since none of the champions under his new playoff format that was adopted in 2014 has made it past the second round the year prior. Also, we’ve had five straight champions, from five different teams. Larson, fits every category.

Also, don’t count out Chase Elliott either. He too is in a must win and we’ve seen what he’s done these playoffs with his back against the wall. He won the ROVAL in the first round and finished second at Kansas in the second round. Plus, Elliott has two top three finishes in his last four Phoenix starts.

Chevrolet hasn’t had a driver in the Championship 4 in each of the last two years and unless Larson or Elliott can win on Sunday, they won’t this year either.

That leaves then the Team Penske duo of Ryan Blaney or Joey Logano. Blaney, finished third in March but that’s his only top five in seven tries at Phoenix. Logano, won this race in 2016 but his finishes since are – 31st, 12th, 19th, 37th and 10th respectively. Plus, he hasn’t won a race since June 10 and has three top five finishes in his last 19 races run.

My money is on Busch and Hamlin making it to the Championship 4.

6 Playoff Drivers Left Without A Win Have Interesting Cases This Weekend

We have six playoff drivers left who have yet to win a race this round. If anyone of them can get to victory lane in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Phoenix, then they know that they’ll automatically advance to Homestead. But, all six have interesting cases.

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano hold the top two spots in the standings among non winners. They have all also won at Phoenix in the past with both combining with Logano having won five of the last seven times in this Fall playoff race. But, what if I told you that neither have won in the playoffs this season either?

Kyle Busch hasn’t won since June 2, Joey Logano hasn’t won since June 10. Busch, has just four top 10 finishes on the season over the last nine weeks. Logano, has scored just three top five finishes in his last 19 starts on the season.

On the flipside, the other four drivers left have won in the playoffs and only one has won in the past at Phoenix though. Also, all four of them likely would need to win Sunday to get in as they probably are too far out to points their way in.

Kyle Larson was sixth back in the spring race and third in last year’s playoff race too. Also, Larson has four top six finishes in his last six Phoenix starts. The numbers favor an upset win by him since none of the champions under his new playoff format that was adopted in 2014 has made it past the second round the year prior. Also, we’ve had five straight champions, from five different teams. Larson, fits every category.

Also, don’t count out Chase Elliott either. He too is in a must win and we’ve seen what he’s done these playoffs with his back against the wall. He won the ROVAL in the first round and finished second at Kansas in the second round. Plus, Elliott has two top three finishes in his last four Phoenix starts.

Ryan Blaney finished third in Phoenix back in March and won at Talladega in the last round.

Denny Hamlin has a top five finish in all but two races since the second round began and was fifth back in the spring race.

Could Be Familiar Championship 4, But Bottom 4 In Standings Have Won In Playoffs

It’s about time to figure out who’s going to be competing for this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Right now, the four drivers that are currently on the good side of the playoff bracket are familiar.

Martin Truex and Kevin Harvick know that they are in by virtue of their wins in each of the last two weeks. The Championship 4 berth for Truex is his third straight and fourth in the last five years. For Harvick, it’s his fifth in six tries.

But, the two “wild card” drivers right now are Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. If they can make it on too, it would be the exact same Championship 4 as last year’s.

Busch, has four straight Championship 4 appearances and Logano two in the last three years.

If Busch can make it, this would mark the third straight year that he, Harvick and Truex had raced each other in the Championship 4. The previous two years, they raced a Penske driver (Brad Keselowski in 2017 and Logano in 2018). Will it be that way again in 2019?

Plus, Busch and Logano appear poised to make it in on points. Busch is +22 and Logano +20. Those are a lot of points for the four drivers not currently in to make up in one race.

Chase Elliott was 22 points down heading into the Round of 12 cutoff race at the Kansas Speedway and finished second to make it on. But, I don’t know if a scenario like that happens in Phoenix.

What’s weird is, Busch and Logano haven’t won since June 2 and June 10 respectively. Those are winless droughts of 20 and 19 races too. That’s the longest droughts of drivers in the playoffs. In a day and age where winning is rewarded more than ever before, two drivers riding more than a half of a season victory lane droughts are on the verge of pointsing their ways to the Championship 4.

The four drivers chasing them have all won in the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin is -20 but won just two weeks ago in Kansas. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are each -23 and have won at Talladega (Blaney) and Dover (Larson) in the Round of 12. Chase Elliott is -78 and won on the Charlotte ROVAL.

That’s four of the last six winners of the playoffs on the wrong side of the playoff grid with one race remaining to set the final round. How bizarre is that?

Busch, is the obvious favorite for Phoenix as since the start/finish line was moved, he’s undefeated (2-for-2). He also has three top two finishes in-a-row at Phoenix as well.

Playoff drivers finished 1-2-3-5-6 back in March with Blaney being in third, Hamlin fifth and Larson sixth. Elliott, was the worst among the non top four back in the spring race in 14th. Logano, was 10th himself.

Busch vs. Logano For Wildcard Spot

Due to Martin Truex Jr’s win at Martinsville and Kevin Harvick’s now at Texas, we know that one spot into the Championship 4 will go to a wildcard driver. with only three races in each round and four drivers advancing to the final race with a shot at the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, it means one spot is available on points.

With how the standings sit heading to Phoenix now, it’s a battle between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano for that final spot.

Busch holds a two point lead on Logano for the third spot in the playoff standings. If Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott wins the race at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix, then we know it’s Busch vs. Logano for sure for that one spot. They’re too far up on everyone else for one of them not to make it on.

Both know that’s at stake now.

“It is going to be a good battle for sure,” said Logano on the battle now with Busch. “We are definitely racing for that last spot just in case someone behind us outside of the top-four wins. Then it will come down to (Busch) and the 22 to try to get for that last spot. It is going to be fun. I am looking forward to the battle. It will be a good time. Obviously the 18 team is good and Kyle is a good driver but I think we are a great team and they are beatable just like everybody else.”

Busch, says Logano is a viable contender despite Busch winning each of the last two times in Phoenix and Logano having only scored three top five finishes in his last 19 starts on the season.

“We all know one guy is going to move through on points and we have to do whatever we have to do in order to be that guy,” said Busch. “If we can obviously go to Phoenix and have a strong run and be able to go out there and win, that will put ourselves through as well too. We’re two (points) on (Joey Logano) so it’s going to be a race between the 18 and the 22, imagine that. … The last couple times we’ve been to Phoenix, we’ve run pretty good. Hopefully, that can translate to this time around again. We were good at Richmond and normally Richmond translates good there. Loudon (N.H.), that translates there. I’m optimistic about it. I think we can do okay. It’s just a matter of running another clean race and not having mistakes.”

Busch 2-for-2 With New Configuration

Kyle Busch hasn’t had the amount of success in the playoffs that he’s initially had hoped that he would. In fact, his 15 additional playoff points that he won for being crowned the regular season champion has carried him to the third round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. But, he’s not facing a situation where he likely needs to end a surprising winless drought to not only get to the Championship 4, but to win this year’s championship.

Busch, sits +22 in the standings right now. He knows that at least one spot will made it to the Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend on points. A solid top five in Sunday’s race would do, but those have been hard to come by lately for him.

Busch, has just two top five finishes in his last nine starts on the season. But, Phoenix could be just what the doctor ordered.

Over his last eight ISM Raceway starts, Busch has a top four in seven of them. He has three consecutive top two finishes as well including winning last year’s playoff race to go along with this year’s spring race around the 1.015-mile Arizona oval.

With the new configuration run last November, Busch is 2-for-2. No one else has won on it.

Now, can he earn his first win since June 2 and stamp his name into the final round?

Logano’s Bid For 2nd Straight Title May End This Weekend If He’s Not Careful

Winning a championship in NASCAR’s highest level is tough. There’s a reason only 10 drivers in the history of the sport have ever done so. Plus, for the 10 to have done it, just look at the names – Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly.

It’s the best of the best.

Johnson won five straight from 2006 through 2010 but prior to him, the last driver to go back-to-back was Gordon in 1997 and again in 1998. Earnhardt did so on three different occasions, two of which coming in the 90’s. But, over the last 31 years, just three times has someone gone back-to-back.

Joey Logano is hoping to make it four.

But, for Logano, he has to end his slump and needs to do so quickly. The Team Penske driver last won at the Michigan International Speedway on June 10. That’s 20 races ago. In the 19 races since his win, the defending series champion has scored just three top five finishes. In fact, he’s had two top fives over the last 17 races run.

Furthermore, over the last 14 races, Logano has brought his No. 22 Ford home 10th or worse in 10 of them.

The only reason he’s still alive in the playoffs in the Round of 8 was for all the playoff points he accumulated during the regular season and for the stage points he’s scored in the playoff races themselves. He’s just not finishing the races off with top 10’s.

This is the final chance to perform. While he’s +20, it’s not all that likely that he advances onto Homestead on points. He’s likely going to have to win or at least contend to do so. The good news for him though is that he’s a past winner at the ISM Raceway. In fact, he won the Fall race in 2016. The problem is, he hasn’t finished better than 10th in his last five starts since that victory.

Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin had some bad luck last weekend but had a top five finish in five of his past six starts prior. He was fifth in the spring race. Both Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are capable of winning on Sunday while the other can finish in the top five. Logano, is struggling to get top fives right now.

Elliott Has Had A Weird Postseason But Shined When The Rounds End

Chase Elliott’s back has been against the wall before. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was facing elimination in the opening round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs only to win the cutoff race on the Charlotte ROVAL. That advanced him to the Round of 12.

In that round, Elliott started off with an engine failure at Dover which put him behind the eight ball. He went to the cutoff race in the second round needing help. He’d get it by virtue of a runner-up finish at the Kansas Speedway.

That propelled him to the Round of 8. Like last round, he had a mechanical malfunction in the opening race in Martinsville and has had him playing catch up. Then, he crashed on Lap 8 of last weekend’s race at Texas. Now, he’s facing a win or go home situation.

Elliott, is too far out to make it to the Championship 4 on points. He’s 78 back. But, he’s prevailed when the times mattered the most. He’s proven that no situation is too big now.

Elliott, has two top three finishes in his last four Phoenix starts and driving for a Hendrick team that has had past success at the ISM Raceway in the past. The problem with HMS at Phoenix though, that success was deep in the past.

HMS has won win in the desert since 2011 (16 races). They’ve had two since 2010. But, prior to 2010, they had won four straight.

Don’t count Elliott out just yet. Every time we do, he manages to advance on. A crash and a win in the same race on the ROVAL, an engine blowing in Dover, a crash in Talladega, an axle breaking in Martinsville and another crash at Texas and Elliott can still race for the championship despite that.

Chevy Looking To End Championship 4 Drought, Need Larson Or Elliott To Win Sunday

We didn’t know it then, but when Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, it would be Chevrolet’s last. Over the last two years, not only has Chevy not had a title, they have failed to make the Championship 4 even.

Right now, they have two drivers still left fighting for this year’s championship. The problem is, if either are to get to Homestead with a chance at the title, they have to win Sunday’s race at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

The good news is, both have a chance to win though.

Kyle Larson was sixth back in the spring race in Phoenix and third in last year’s playoff race too. Also, Larson has four top six finishes in his last six Phoenix starts. The numbers favor an upset win by him since none of the champions under his new playoff format that was adopted in 2014 has made it past the second round the year prior. Also, we’ve had five straight champions, from five different teams. Larson, fits every category.

Also, don’t count out Chase Elliott either. He too is in a must win and we’ve seen what he’s done these playoffs with his back against the wall. He won the ROVAL in the first round and finished second at Kansas in the second round. Plus, Elliott has two top three finishes in his last four Phoenix starts.

Chevrolet is getting tired of not competing for championships anymore. From 2005 through 2016, the bowties captured 10 championships in the 12 year span.

If you go back to 1984 even and end it at 2016, Chevrolet had 23 tiles compared to Ford’s 5, Pontiac’s 3, Toyota’s and Dodge’s 1 a piece. At the time of Jimmie Johnson hoisting his seventh Cup championship trophy in 2016, Dodge and Pontiac were out of NASCAR while Ford hadn’t won a title since 2004.

It was pure domination.

Chevy had won at least 10 races for 16 straight seasons. They had won at least nine races every year from 1993 though 2016 too. In fact, from 2003 through 2016, they won 15 races in a single season in 12 of 14 years.

But, that’s when the bottom started dropping out.

They won just 10 times in 2017, their lowest since having nine victories in 2000. In 2018, they won only four times, their smallest amount since only scoring three wins in 1982. This year, they’ve rebounded to win seven times, but their 11 trips to victory lane the last two years combined is smaller than every single single’s total other than 2017 (10) from 2001 on.

Joe Gibbs Racing Dominance

We didn’t know it then, but when Joe Gibbs Racing finished 1-2-3 in the season opening Daytona 500, it would be an unexpected preview for what was to come in what has been a dominating performance during the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season for them.

We’re 34 races into the year, with only two races remaining and JGR has taken home 17 race winning trophies. They’ve literally won half of the races run this season. That’s the second most victories for one organization in a single season since Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. They won 18 that year. JGR, is two shy of breaking that record.

They’ve also won half of the playoff races run as well in taking four of the eight race wins this postseason.

Plus, they’ve won all the big races. Yes, the playoff races are large, but so is the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and the Bristol Night Race as well.

Currently, Martin Truex Jr. knows that he will be racing for the championship next weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. But, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are on the verge of joining him.

Having two drivers in the Championship 4 has happened before, but three will be unprecedented. Don’t be surprised if it happens too.

Denny Hamlin has six top 10 finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts. He also has scored a top five finish in four of his last six races on the season. While he’s -20, with Joey Logano still struggling in my opinion, Hamlin can find his way in.

Kyle Busch is undefeated under this configuration at Phoenix. He won last November to go along with leading 177 laps in a spring race victory too. His worst finish since the start of last year in the desert is second. Furthermore, in seven of his last eight Phoenix starts overall, he’s finished fourth or better.

JGR put three cars in the top five of the spring race at the ISM Raceway.

Non Playoff Winner?

With dwindling championship eligible drivers left, Phoenix is a spot that you can see a non playoff driver reach victory lane in fact. While it’s still rare to occur, don’t count this out from not happening on Sunday afternoon. Since 2015, a non playoff driver has won this race twice in the last four years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did so in 2015 while Matt Kenseth did it in 2017.

2015, 2017…2019?

If so, who will steal a win?

Among the playoff drivers who can still win and gain a spot to the Championship 4, Kyle Busch hasn’t won since June 2 and Joey Logano hasn’t won since June 10. Both though have won at Phoenix in the past.

The other four left have won in this year’s playoffs. but only one has won at Phoenix before.

That opens the door up for a non playoff winner then.

Jimmie Johnson went 16 of his 18 starts at Phoenix between 2005 and 2011 with a top five finish. He had four wins from 2007 though 2009 and was fourth in his other start that he didn’t win at. He’s a factor. He led 40 laps last weekend in Texas before his crash.

Aric Almirola will be too. His last four Phoenix finishes are ninth, seventh, fourth and fourth respectively. He came home runner-up last weekend in Texas and heads to the desert with a lot of momentum.

Erik Jones could be a factor as well. Jones, has three top 10 finishes in five Phoenix tries.

You can’t leave out Kurt Busch. He just signed a multi year contract extension to remain at Ganassi and has four top 10 finishes in his last five starts on the season. Also, Busch won the spring race at Phoenix in 2015 and has seven top 10 finishes in his last 10 starts in the desert including a seventh place run in the spring race.

Ending The Season With Momentum For Non Playoff Drivers

As we enter the final stretch of the 2019 season, all the talk is on the playoff drivers. Rightfully so too. The championship is the end all be all this time of year. But, for those not in the playoffs, the next two weeks are all about ending this year with some positive momentum for 2020.

Kurt Busch is on fire again. He has four top 10’s in his last five starts on the season and seven top 10’s in his last 10 starts in Phoenix. He was seventh back in the spring race. Arguably, he’s running as good as his championship eligible teammate Kyle Larson right now.

Aric Almirola came into the playoffs without a top five finish since a fourth place run at Phoenix back in March. He now has two over the last four weeks. Also, in his last four Phoenix starts, he’s placed in the top 10 in each. Why not keep that momentum going?

For some other drivers, they need to find it.

Almirola’s teammate of Daniel Suarez finished third last weekend in Texas, but he has to sustain that. He’s in contract talks still with SHR and that was a good showing to prove he deserves a second opportunity. But, prior to his third place run, Suarez had four finishes of 30th or worse in five tries. He’s also finished 18th or worse in three of his last four Phoenix starts.

Their other teammate in Clint Bowyer enters having scored five top 11 finishes in his last seven starts on the year and eight in the last 11 overall, but at Phoenix, he’s struggled. The ISM Raceway isn’t one of his better tracks. Bowyer, has zero top fives in the desert since a runner-up in 2008 and was 35th in this race last year.

Brad Keselowski also wants to regain his momentum. Heading into the Round of 12, Keselowski had five top five finishes in six races. Since? 11th, 25th, 19th, third and 39th respectively. Phoenix isn’t a relatively strong track for him either. He has just two top five finishes since 2015, but one was a runner-up in this race last year. He was 19th in the spring.

Another driver in a top ride needing some momentum is Erik Jones. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is watching his three teammates duke it out for the championship while he was eliminating in the first round for the second consecutive year. Jones, hasn’t had a top five in his last nine starts with five of those results being 30th or worse. He does have three top 10 finishes in five starts at Phoenix though and was in the top 10 last weekend in Texas.

We can’t leave out Jimmie Johnson. He has finally started to show more and more speed out of his No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson, has five top 11 finishes in this year’s playoffs but has slumped lately with three finishes of 34th or worse in his last four starts. He hasn’t had a top five at Phoenix since 2015 and needs to build as much momentum for he and his crew chief Cliff Daniels to be better out of the gates in 2020.

2020 Championship Preview?

This weekend’s race at the ISM Raceway will be the last on this race weekend. Next year, the NASCAR season finale weekend moves to Phoenix. So, will this weekend give us a preview of what could be in store for 2020?

NASCAR is adding the traction compound on the 1.015-mile racing surface, so they’re doing their part in adding grip. Plus, minimal changes are being made to the racing package itself between this year and next, so what you’ll see this weekend will translate well over to what we will see with even higher stakes in November 2020.

The problem is, the racing product on tracks 1-mile in length or shorter has been less than ideal. Just look at what happened at Martinsville two weeks ago. Martin Truex Jr. led 464 of 500 laps that day. In the spring race, Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in his victory.

A round earlier at Dover, the common post race theme was “dirty air” and “lack of passing.” Dover, is a one-mile race track, albeit a much different configuration than the one at Phoenix, but I have a feeling we will see a similar race.

Kyle Busch led 177 laps in the spring race at Phoenix. It was tough to pass that day as well.

The traction compound is a solution but will it work? It doesn’t seem like the tracks are the problem, it’s the high downforce and the way the spoilers are forcing higher cornering speeds but tough to follow a car in front due to the dirty air. How can you pass someone going the same speed?

Where Phoenix differs than Dover though is, there could be chances to move drivers out of the way. That’s why I say this is a big preview on what to expect around this time next year.

 

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