Win or go home. That is the mantra for four of the eight playoff drivers remaining in the Cup Championship Playoffs as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona for this week’s Bluegreen Vacations 500. Formerly the Can-Am 500, this is the final race in the Round of 8. The final four will head to Homestead-Miami Speedway next week for a shot at the championship.
We’ll give this race the breakdown it deserves with plenty of analysis and some picks for the 35th race of 36 during the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
No Second Chances
This is it for Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott. Hamlin trails Joey Logano by 20 points for the final spot in the championship round in South Florida next week. Logano is only two points in back of Kyle Busch, whose long drought continued last week with a seventh-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. Logano could leapfrog Busch and Busch could be left out of the final four if some craziness happens this weekend.
Twenty points is virtually impossible to make up in one race, so Hamlin, Blaney, Larson, and Elliott are going for the win. There is no contingency plan. A major wreck that takes out a large portion of the field could do it, but this is a standard-issue one -mile track, not a road course or a plate race. That means that those four drivers need to be very aggressive.
We could see some “teammatesmanship” in this race, though. Hamlin is with Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch and Truex would currently be among the final four. If there is a chance to push Hamlin in without taking Busch out, we could see some interesting strategy over the final few laps. Busch’s precarious two-point lead over Logano could be a hindrance.
Blaney, Larson, and Elliott have no friends among the final four. Logano does run for Team Penske, the same as Blaney, but he’s in CYA mode right above the cut-off line. He won’t be helping anybody except himself this week.
The rest of the field should be happy that Kevin Harvick won last week at Texas. A motivated Harvick at ISM Raceway, formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway, would have been bad. Harvick has nine career wins at this track, with four in this fall race and five in the spring race. Nobody else has more than four and the driver with four is Jimmie Johnson, who hasn’t won here since 2009.
Kyle Busch is coming off of back-to-back Phoenix wins. He won this race last year and the spring race earlier this year. Busch also has 11 career wins in Nationwide/Xfinity Series races at this track.
He could certainly use the win this week. His last win came in the first Pocono race way back on June 2. He has seven top-five finishes since then, including the most laps led three times, but he hasn’t been able to break through. Barring a win from the aforementioned foursome below the cut line, Busch is safe, but he has gone a long time without a win.
Busch is the +310 favorite this week to end that drought. Hamlin, who absolutely must have a win, is +550, along with Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Truex already has three wins in the playoffs. For all of his fortunes on 1.5-mile tracks, he is winless here. He does have three top-five finishes in his last four starts at Phoenix, though.
Hamlin led the most laps in this race two year sago, but finished 35th. He was 13th in the fall last year. He’s got back-to-back top-five finishes and has been in the top five in three of his last four in the spring race, but he desperately needs a good run this week. If he can get one and get the win, he’s been the pole sitter in three of the last four championship races at Homestead-Miami and has won there twice. But, he has to get through this race first.
No Margin For Error
The other drivers with no margin for error – Blaney, Larson, Elliott – are not priced the same as Hamlin. Elliott is +880, but Blaney and Larson are both +1320. None of them have won here in the Cup Series of the Xfinity Series. My apologies, as I’ve been calling this a 1.5-mile track all season long. It is actually a one-mile track, so I no longer have any margin for error in that department.
In any event, Blaney was third here in the spring and won the pole position. It is his only top-five finish at Phoenix. Blaney wouldn’t be here without his Talladega win and the +1320 price is even low. I’d fade him in matchups.
Larson was third in this race last year and third here three years ago. His Dover win is the reason he is still standing, as it has been a disappointing year for the 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. He has had some good runs here before and has to be aggressive, but it still seems like a longer shot to get through. His Xfinity Series results here aren’t even great. Again, a matchups fade.
Elliott has the shortest price and has two top-five finishes in seven Cup Series starts just outside of Phoenix. He was second two years ago in this race and third last year in the spring. With two road course wins and a win at Talladega this season, it doesn’t seem like we’ll have any surprises.
Hamlin is the only win or go home hope. Rather than take the +550 this week, given his strong runs at Homestead-Miami, try looking at him to win it all at a bigger price. If he does get the win here, the highest finisher of the four remaining drivers is the winner at Homestead-Miami and he’s been very good there.
I don’t think we get any surprises this week. Either Busch or Harvick is very likely to win this race. Harvick is simply going for a pay day here, whereas Busch does have some extra incentive to pick up the win. Those are my two picks for this week. Square as all get out, but it’s hard to see somebody else sneaking in there. Brad Keselowski was second last year and he is +1760, so maybe he tickles your fancy as a longer shot.