Can Chase Elliott or Jimmie Johnson get a win Sunday at Phoenix? The two Hendrick Motorsports drivers are essentially facing win-and-in situations in the final race of the third round of the playoffs.
Coincidentally, they have the best average finishes of any of the eight playoff drivers at the 1-mile track. Though in the case of the seven-time champion, his is skewed by success at the track before it was repaved and slightly reconfigured in the middle of 2011.
For those drivers that have competed in races at the track before and after the reconfiguration, we have their overall average finish and their post-reconfiguration average finish posted. The differences are pretty stark in some cases.
1. Kyle Busch [Won at Martinsville]
2. Kevin Harvick [Won at Texas]
3. Martin Truex Jr. [Clinched on points]
4. Brad Keselowski, 4,111 points
5. Denny Hamlin, 4,092 points
6. Ryan Blaney, 4,089 points
7. Chase Elliott, 4,062 points
8. Jimmie Johnson, 4,060 points
Martin Truex Jr. (23 starts)
Top 10s: 7
Average finish: 17.6
Average finish after reconfiguration: 19.5
This is the one track where Truex and Cole Pearn haven’t quite found any magic. Though last year Truex was bizarrely penalized for hitting pit road before the pace car crossed a similar point on the track. That was a penalty not enforced by NASCAR in the spring race.
Brad Keselowski (16 starts)
Top 10s: 8
Average finish: 14.0
Average finish after reconfiguration: 8.0
Keselowski only made four starts at Phoenix on the old configuration and the timing of the current configuration corresponds with Keselowski’s rise to elite status in the Cup Series. So there’s more than just a reconfiguration playing into his stark average finish difference. Assuming a driver behind him in the standings doesn’t win on Sunday, eighth should be good enough to get Keselowski to the final round.
Ryan Blaney (3 starts)
Top 10s: 2
Average finish: 13.7
Blaney was 23rd at Phoenix in the spring, his worst finish at the track. His other two finishes are 10th and 8th.
Kyle Busch (24 starts)
Top 10s: 16
Average finish: 12.5
Average finish after reconfiguration: 10.9
Busch won his second career start at the track. He hasn’t won there since, though he’s been slightly better on the current track than the old one. Busch is on a run of four-straight top-five finishes at Phoenix and a win on Sunday would deny someone the chance to clinch an automatic berth.
Denny Hamlin (24 starts)
Top 10s: 14
Average finish: 10.8
Average finish after reconfiguration: 10.1
Ah, Phoenix, the place where Denny Hamlin criticized NASCAR’s current car in 2013 and got fined for it. Such sweet memories. Hamlin’s win came in the 2012 spring race at the track and he’s on a run of four-straight top-10 finishes himself.
Kevin Harvick (29 starts)
Top 10s: 18
Average finish: 9.9
Average finish after reconfiguration: 4.3
Yeah, Harvick is a freaking machine at the new Phoenix. His stats are ridiculous. Six of his eight wins at the track have come since 2011 and he once led 70 laps or more in six-straight races. He hasn’t led a lap in the last two races, so maybe the domination is waning a tad.
Chase Elliott (3 starts)
Top 10s: 2
Average finish: 9.7
Small sample sizes, sure, but Elliott has finishes of eighth, ninth and 12th at Phoenix. He led 106 laps in the spring. He’s going to need to lead 100+ laps on Sunday — preferably the final 100 laps — to make the final four.
Jimmie Johnson (28 starts)
Top 10s: 20
Average finish: 9.0
Average finish after reconfiguration: 14.5
As Harvick has taken off since the reconfiguration, Johnson’s domination has ceased. Johnson’s last win at the track came in 2009 and has led just 114 laps in the 12 races since Phoenix was redone. Like Truex, Johnson was also dinged with a pulling up to pit penalty last fall. It didn’t matter to him because he had won earlier in the round at Martinsville. A pit penalty would matter significantly on Sunday.