By Jared Turner
As pressure cookers go, they don’t get more intense than Sunday’s final leg of the Eliminator Round in the Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup at Phoenix International Raceway.
When Jimmie Johnson, a non-Chase driver, won this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, it meant that three of four spots remained open for the winner-take-all Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.
With only Jeff Gordon having punched his ticket to the Championship 4, seven drivers are vying for the remaining three spots – and the opportunity to compete for the championship in the 2015 season finale.
All this will be decided on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix, a 1-mile track where Kevin Harvick has won four consecutive races.
Harvick, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion, is currently third in the Chase standings, and is 10 points ahead of fifth-place Carl Edwards, the first driver who would miss the cutoff for Homestead.
Despite his strong position and outstanding resume at Phoenix, Harvick – who describes his Chase so far as “hectic” – is only cautiously optimistic about his chances of moving on.
“The cars have been performing well,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “We’ve just had to overcome things week after week after week. I guess those are character-building moments as you go through those weekend, but we’ve managed to survive and advance and that’s what we’ve got to do next week.”
One point ahead of Harvick in the standings is second-place Kyle Busch, who is situated best among those still seeking to lock up a berth among the Championship 4.
“Being in this position it’s obviously good, but I’ve been in a really good position before and had stuff happen and been knocked out,” said Busch, a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. “We don’t need to have any of that, we just need to go out in Phoenix and have a good, solid day. That place hasn’t been the best for our company over the last few years, but I’m looking forward to getting out there.”
If there’s one driver outside the top four who could advance to Homestead without winning at Phoenix, it’s Edwards, who, at just seven points behind fourth-place Martin Truex Jr., could overcome the deficit with just a solid afternoon.
“Phoenix is a good track for me,” said Edwards, a winner of multiple races at PIR. “It wasn’t that good for us in the spring, but everyone feels like they have something for this one. We’ll just go there and race as hard as we can.”
Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, meanwhile, must win this weekend to make it to Homestead.
Though doing so will be a tough feat – especially when considering Harvick’s dominance the past few years at PIR – the Penske boys aren’t throwing in the towel.
“It’s the same as this week,” Logano said after heading to the garage early at Texas following a tire failure. “This was a must win-situation as well. If we finished second today we would be in the same boat going into Phoenix. I feel great about our chances at Phoenix. It has been a great racetrack for us in the past.”
Keselowski, who dominated at Texas but finished second to Johnson, downplayed the notion of Phoenix being a high-pressure situation for his team.
“It isn’t pressure,” the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion said. “It is opportunity and I am happy to have those opportunities with a great team.”
Kurt Busch, the driver between Keselowski and Logano in the Chase standings, is in the exact same boat. It’s win at Phoenix or try again next year.
“We’ve got to go there to win,” said Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion. “If we would have gotten a good consistent finish last week (at Martinsville), we would be right in the mix.”