The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup ‘Round of Eight’ is in the homestretch. Just one race remains before the Championship Four in Homestead. With Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards safely locked into a championship berth, six more drivers will be gunning for two more spots during the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend. The way the Chase standings sit after the AAA Texas 500, at least one race team will make the showdown on points.
Carl Edwards and Joey Logano both came to Texas Motor Speedway below the cut line in the playoff standings. Their first and second-place finishes on the 1.5- mile surface boosted them into second and third in the standings, which are close.
Logano and Kyle Busch, who finished fifth, are just one point above the chopping block. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch currently find themselves on the outside looking in and in the bottom four.
In the Toyota post-race transcript, Kenseth, who finished seventh, described his performance in the Lone Star State as ‘mediocre’. “We were just kind of middle of the road,” the driver of the No. 20 DEWALT FLEXVOLT Toyota said. “We qualified decent, we kept that track position. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) did a good job. One time we pitted early and got a few spots and got up to fifth but then we just got behind on the second to last pit stop and when I get behind people we were just kind of mediocre. I just couldn’t really pass anybody but if you put me in line in fifth I could run fifth. Unfortunately a couple of those guys got in front of me and I couldn’t get back around them. So, we had a good stop our last one, had a good restart and got a couple spots but that was about all I could get.”
Kenseth is just one point away from the top four in the Chase and knows he is going to have to work for it at Phoenix to get into the title hunt. “Obviously Kevin (Harvick) is dominant is an understatement at Phoenix so you almost have to pencil him in for that third spot,” Kenseth pointed out. “So, really I feel like the rest of us are fighting for that fourth spot next week. You know, we’re just going to have to go there. It hasn’t necessarily been our best track but we’ve ran pretty well there lately so we just have to go there with the idea to try and win the race, try to lead some laps, get some bonus points and hopefully get a good enough finish.”
His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin is sixth in the standings and two points below the cut line. The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota ended a late night in Texas with a ninth-place finish. “It was just kind of in between,” Hamlin said, also in the Toyota transcript. “I thought we had a little bit better car than that at times. We just had a tough deal on restarts. We would always get the top line which was bad and we got blocked in on just about every time and that cost us a few spots as well. So, that made for a tough day track position-wise. I thought that if we could’ve just gained a couple spot here and there on runs and then pit stops our car was much better in clean air. So, we just kept gaining a little and losing them a little bit on pit road.”
Going into Phoenix, Hamlin is optimistic. “Phoenix is a good track for us in the spring,” he said. “I look to go back there and have another great run and go out there and try to win. “Anytime I’ve been below (the cut line) on an elimination race I’ve found a way to get in on the final in the elimination round so I like our chances. It’s a pressure race and I like pressure.”
The Stewart-Haas Racing duo of Harvick and Busch hold down the seventh and eighth positions in the standings. Harvick, the No. 4 Busch Beer Chevrolet driver, finished sixth in Texas while the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet piloted by Busch finished 20th.
“Our Busch Beer Chevy was off,” Harvick said in a post-race report from Stewart-Haas Racing. “We were tight, we were loose, and we were kind of all over the place. We could take off okay, but we would fall way off at the end of a run. All in all, everybody battled and did all they could, and we just didn’t have a fast-enough car.”
Busch explained his night, in the Team Chevy transcript, in only a couple sentences.“We just missed the set-up.,” he said. “It’s a Chase race, it’s kind of important and we missed it again.”
Who will sneak into the 'Championship Four' and who will just miss the cut? We'll know after Phoenix.