Sunday’s Phoenix 500k NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway is the last one before the eight drivers competing in the Eliminator Round of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship are reduced to the four who will take part in the winner-take-all Championship Round Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Thus, it is the last chance for Kurt Busch and the No. 41 Haas Automation team for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) to lock themselves into the field that will compete for the title.
Currently seventh in points, Busch can control his own destiny by winning the penultimate race of the 2015 Sprint Cup season and earning an automatic berth into the championship final. He also could lock himself into the final four by points, as well, since only Jeff Gordon is currently locked into the final via his Elimination Round victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. But, Busch would need tremendous help to out-point the drivers ranked ahead of him. While Gordon celebrated his Martinsville victory, Busch was left to wonder what might have been after being involved in an accident not of his own making that relegated him and his SHR team to a disappointing 34th-place finish and left them essentially in a must-win scenario to advance.
If he was to advance the hard way, Busch would need to have a strong enough finish Sunday at Phoenix while three other drivers suffer enough misfortune that they wouldn’t be able to overtake him in the points. And that’s only if a non-Chase driver wins the race, leaving the final three spots open for the highest-ranked drivers still eligible for the championship. If one of the seven Elimination Round contestants were to win at Phoenix other than Gordon, that would leave just two transfer spots open via points.
Sound complicated? Well, it is. Busch and his Tony Gibson-led team will focus on making it easy. “Win and we’re in,” they say. And, at one of Busch’s best racetracks, statistically speaking – his average Phoenix finish is 13.9, third-best among active racetracks on the circuit – Busch expects to not only clinch a spot in the Championship Round, but to establish the momentum he’ll need to potentially win his second series championship, as well.
Busch has an April 2005 win, six top-five finishes and 14 top-10s in 25 career Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix. But he’s not the only one who’s experienced success there. Gibson’s first win at the helm of a Sprint Cup team came at Phoenix in April 2010. He was calling the shots for Ryan Newman and the No. 39 team, and the win was also the first for SHR at the desert oval.
Knowing a win Sunday would guarantee their presence in the Championship Round, Busch and the No. 41 team know it will be imperative to put all their energy, focus and determination on the race itself and do whatever it takes to drive the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet into victory lane and into NASCAR’s final round of the playoffs.