Kevin Harvick’s Texas win made him the second driver to claim a spot as one of the four drivers that will make up the Championship 4 that will go to the season ending race at Homestead-Miami with the opportunity to win this season’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.
He joins Martin Truex Jr. as the only drivers out of the remaining eight-man playoff field that will go to ISM Raceway in Phoenix without having to face the pressure of trying to claim one of the two remaining spots.
Harvick wasted very little time after the haulers rolled into the infield of Texas Motor Speedway to establish himself as the driver to beat on Sunday as he put his Stewart Haas Racing Mustang on the pole. He won the first stage of the AAA Texas 500 and seemed to be on his way to cruising to his fourth win of the season until he came down on pit road under caution on lap 186.
A crew member dropped a tire into his pit stall before he had entered his pit which resulted in him being forced to restart the race from the rear of the field. Once the green flag dropped to restart the race, it didn’t take long for Harvick to work his way back to the front.
He passed his teammate Aric Almirola for the lead on lap 255 and went on to lead a top-three finish for SHR as Almirola finished second followed by teammate Daniel Suarez in third. The organization’s domination also showed up in the number of laps led as SHR drivers including Clint Bowyer combined to lead 242 of the 334 laps with Harvick leading all drivers at the point for 119 laps.
After Harvick’s Texas dominance, six drivers now go to Phoenix with their championship dreams still alive and each knowing that only two will advance.
That raises the question of which drivers go into this Sunday’s race knowing they will have to win to advance and which drivers still have the opportunity to advance because of their position in the points.
Going into Phoenix, Kyle Busch is 22 points and Joey Logano is 20 points above the cut-off line but neither driver is consider safe as Denny Hamlin showed at Texas how quick a playoff position can be lost after he spun out sending his car through the infield causing a tremendous amount of damage to the front end of his Toyota.
His pit crew was able to repair the damage enough to allow him to finish the race but he crossed the finish line in 28th that dropped him to the first driver 20 points below the cut-off line.
Joining Hamlin below the cut-off line is Ryan Blaney (-23), Kyle Larson (-23) and Chase Elliott (-78) and with only Phoenix remaining, these four drivers have to enter Sunday’s race thinking the only way to advance to the title race is with a win.
Elliott’s only scenario of advancing is with a win but Hamlin, Blaney and Larson still have a chance even though it is slim of advancing if they can collect enough points to climb above the cut-off line. Even with a top-five finish from one of these drivers, either Busch or Logano would have to get caught up in an accident or mechanical problems that would drop them near the bottom of the finishing order.
The scenario for the final two spots now will feature several different strategies as Busch and Logano know if they can stay out of trouble and collect as many points as possible during the first two stages that they may be able to protect their spots.
Some of the remaining drivers will try to collect as many points as possible in the first stage and then time their pit stop during the second stage to get the track position they need to run for the win.
Phoenix may not be the final race that will determine the series champion but it will be the only race left for two drivers to secure their way into the final.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.