DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As expected, this week's championship set-up race, the Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), comes with plenty of storylines and title possibilities still to be decided.
Of the eight remaining Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff competitors, only Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have assured themselves a position in the driver foursome that will race for the 2019 series title next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Regular season champion Kyle Busch is third in the standings with only a two-point advantage on fourth place Joey Logano.
Five-race winner Denny Hamlin leads the four-driver charge to displace one or both of those drivers. He trails Logano by 20 points. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are 23 points behind Logano and Chase Elliott is 78 points back -- needing nothing short of a victory to advance to his first career NASCAR Championship 4.
That third and fourth position in the standings are so important as points will decide at least one of those spots in the Championship 4 -- depending on whether Phoenix crowns a winner from inside the Playoff field or outside of it.
If the standings remain the same following Sunday's race, with Truex, Harvick, Busch and Logano advancing, it will mark the first time in NASCAR's Playoff era that the same four drivers made up the Championship 4 in back-to-back seasons. It also ensures the first multi-time champion in the series since Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh season title in 2016.
Certainly, Busch shows up in the Arizona desert feeling most optimistic. He has won both races since a complete revision to the one-mile ISM Raceway that included -- among other things -- repositioning the start/finish line to the other side of the track. Although the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won the regular season championship and has four race victories in 2019, Busch hasn't won since June 2 at Pocono Raceway.
Logano, the reigning series champion and driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, has a pair of wins this season and challenged Busch for the regular season title. But he hasn't won a race since June 9 at Michigan. He has one win at Phoenix -- the 2016 Playoff race.
Other than Hamlin, who won in 2012 at Phoenix, none of the other three drivers trying to break into the top four have previously won a Cup race at the track. Blaney's best work came this March, however, when the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford started on the pole, led 94 laps and finished third.
Larson, driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has five top-10 finishes in 11 Phoenix starts with a best finish of runner-up in the 2017 March race. He was third in the Playoff race here last year and finished sixth earlier this season.
"Phoenix has been a pretty good place for us," Larson said. "We've had some strong runs there and competed for wins, and I think we'll have another competitive Camaro this weekend.
"Our team has never made it this close to a shot at the Final Four, and even though we're not in a great place in the points, we're excited about our chances this weekend. I think our strategy has been good the last two races, we just didn't have things work out on track in our favor last weekend.
"It sounds like the traction compound will be applied this weekend similar to last weekend and I think that plays into my ability to move around during the race to find speed. So, we'll head to the track this weekend ready to do what we can to have a good race and hopefully advance."
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is the acknowledged longshot this weekend. But he is averaging an 11.3 finish in three Playoff races at ISM Raceway. His best finish was a runner-up showing in 2017 -- a high-profile afternoon because he made contact with Hamlin late in the event. Hamlin had led 193 laps but finished 35th after his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota suffered damage after the contact with Elliott -- all stemming from an on-track feud between the drivers earlier in the Playoffs.
While Truex, the 2017 series champion, leads the standings heading to Phoenix, he has never won at the track before. His best career finish, however, came in March when his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished second to teammate Kyle Busch.
Harvick joins Busch as a high-odds favorite this weekend. Although he's not won at the new-look ISM Raceway, he boasts a record nine wins at the track. His 16 top-five finishes and 1,595 laps led are also most in the field. Last week's Texas winner has earned 12 straight top-10 finishes at Phoenix, winning the last race (March, 2018) on the former version of the track. He was fifth in this race last year in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and ninth this Spring.
Among current drivers, 2019 Playoff drivers have won every Phoenix race but one (Ryan Newman, 2017) since Fall, 2011.
ISM RACWAY TO DECIDE XFINITY'S CHAMP 4
There's plenty of reason for Christopher Bell to be confident this weekend at ISM Raceway. He is the defending winner of Saturday's Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the series' most recent winner, taking the trophy at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend to become the only Playoff driver so far eligible to hoist the big trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week.
The Texas win was Bell's season-best eighth victory and certainly sends a strong message of contention to his closest competitors. Just below the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the standings is seven-race winner Cole Custer, driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He holds a slim 16-point edge on five-race winner Tyler Reddick -- the reigning series champion and driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Justin Allgaier -- who joins Bell as the only former Phoenix race winners in Saturday's field -- is in fourth place in the standings with an 18-point advantage on fifth-place Chase Briscoe for that all-important final championship-eligible transfer position.
Veteran Michael Annett, driver of the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, is 28 points behind Allgaier. Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, is seventh, 31 points back, and rookie Noah Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, is 47 points behind Allgaier.
Among these eight drivers, Reddick boasts the best average finish (8.2) at ISM Raceway with three top-10 finishes in four races. Cindric is averaging an 8.3 finish in three starts, including a pair of top-five showings.
Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, has the next best average finish (9.1) among those Playoff drivers with multiple starts at the Phoenix track. He has that March 2017 win and six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes -- tops among all the championship eligible drivers. He was runner-up to Cup regular Brad Keselowski in last Spring's Xfinity race.
Both Custer (9.6) and Bell (9.8) are the only other drivers to have an average better than 10th. Annett, whose 14 starts are second only to Allgaier's 18 races, is averaging a 15.2 finish and has yet to lead a lap at ISM Raceway.
Among the rookies, Briscoe was sixth in his only previous Xfinity Series start at Phoenix earlier this year. Gragson was 11th in his only start.
Allgaier is the only driver to score top-10 finishes in the first two races of this Playoff round -- fifth at Kansas and sixth at Texas (5.5 average). With a Texas win and 12th-place finish at Kansas, Bell is averaging 6.5 this round and Annett is next with a 7.5 average in the two races -- fourth at Kansas and 11th at Texas.
The other average finishes in this round include: Custer (9.5), Briscoe (12.5), Cindric (14), Reddick (15.5) and Gragson (21.5).
"I am happy we aren't on the cutoff line or anything like that," Custer said. "That makes it a lot less stressful. At the same time, we aren't locked in so we have to make sure we do our jobs and not have any big mistakes.
"I think we can go there and be good, we just have to make it happen."
CLOSE BATTLE FOR GANDER TRUCKS AT PHOENIX
The championship set-up for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series features the closest points battle among NASCAR's three national series. Only 15 points separate fourth place Hattori Racing Enterprise's Austin Hill from sixth place Tyler Ankrum with four drivers trying to earn championship eligibility into the Nov. 15 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
None of the six current Playoff drivers has earned a victory in this round of the Playoff competition. However defending series champion Brett Moffitt, driver of the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet, comes into Friday's Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix's ISM Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the defending winner -- winning in his first series start at the historic one-mile track last November.
Moffitt holds a 10-point edge on Stewart Friesen, who leads Ross Chastain by 15 points atop the standings. Hill is fourth and this group has accounted for 11 wins in the 21 races to date.
A victory this weekend at ISM Raceway, however, would be game-changing -- guaranteeing a position to race for the championship in Miami. Since the Playoff format, no Championship 4 has been entirely set on points, but this season's could possibly be the first and at the very least three drivers will "point" their way into title eligibility.
In addition to Moffitt's perfect record at Phoenix, both Niece Motorsport's Ross Chastain (2018) and ThorSport Racing's Matt Crafton (2014) have runner-up finishes. Friesen's best ever showing at the track came last year (fifth). Ankrum, who drives the DGR-Crosley Toyota, was sixth last year -- his second career Gander Trucks start.
In the two races of this Playoff round, Friesen, the driver of the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Chevrolet, has the best average finish (5.5) with a fifth (at Talladega) and sixth (Martinsville) place efforts.
Chastain has had the next best showing with a runner-up at Martinsville to answer a 22nd-place finish at Talladega. Crafton is averaging 15.5 in this Playoff round, followed by Hill and Ankrum, who have averaged a 16.0 finish. Defending champ Moffitt has a 16.5 average with a fourth place at Talladega and a 29th place at Martinsville -- the worst finish in this round by any of the six drivers.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Bluegreen Vacations 500
The Place: ISM Raceway
The Date: Sunday, November 10
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 312 miles (312 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 312)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
What to Watch For: Kevin Harvick is the all-time winningest driver at ISM Raceway with nine victories. A win this weekend for Harvick would make him the sixth driver in history to score 10 wins at a track, and the first to do so at Phoenix. NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty won at least 10 races at five different tracks. ... Harvick has double the number of victories as Jimmie Johnson (four wins) at Phoenix, but the two are tied for most top-five finishes (16) and Harvick has the most top-10 finishes (22). ... Harvick is the last driver to win at Phoenix and then go on to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship (2014). Johnson did it three consecutive seasons (2007-09). Dale Earnhardt was the first to do so (1990). ... Harvick has the most Playoff wins at Phoenix (four). .... Kyle Busch has won both races to date on the newly renovated Phoenix one-miler. ... Johnson and Kyle Busch have the most runner-up finishes (three) among active drivers at Phoenix. ... Only four drivers entered this week have won multiple times at Phoenix led by Harvick (nine wins), Johnson (four), Busch (three) and Newman (two). ... Busch won the Fall, 2005 race then again in Fall, 2018 making the longest span between race victories at ISM Raceway. ... The pole-winner has won the race five times at Phoenix. Only two active drivers have accomplished that -- Harvick in Spring, 2015 and Johnson in Fall, 2005. ... In eight of the last 10 races, the winner has started 10th or better. ... Seven of 46 races at the track have gone into overtime. The last Playoff race to have that happen was in 2016 when Joey Logano beat Kyle Busch for the win. ... Kevin Harvick boasts the best average finish (9.3) and driver rating (110.8) among drivers. ... Chase Elliott has the best average starting position (5.429) in history. ... Ryan Newman will be making his 35th start this weekend giving him the most Cup Series starts in track history. ... Three active drivers made their Cup series debut at Phoenix -- Ryan Newman (Nov, 2000), Clint Bowyer (April, 2005) and Matt DiBenedetto (March, 2015). ... Clint Bowyer has made the most starts (28) without a victory at Phoenix. ... Four times non-playoff drivers have won the Fall race -- Kyle Busch (2005), Kasey Kahne (2011), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2015) and Matt Kenseth (2017). ... Alan Kulwicki won the very first race at the Phoenix track in November, 1988. ... The closest Margin of Victory (MOV) is .010-second when Harvick beat Carl Edwards in March, 2016. ... Hendrick Motorsports is the winningest organization at Phoenix with 10 victories. ... Chevrolet is the winningest manufacturer at Phoenix with 23 wins. Ford has 16 and Toyota has five -- including three of the last four races. Chevrolet won a record 10 straight races from 2005-2009. ... Ricky Rudd won the race in 1995 from the farthest starting position (29th) on the grid.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200
The Place: ISM Raceway
The Date: Saturday, November 9
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
2018 Race Winner: Christopher Bell
What to Watch For: Christopher Bell's win last week at Texas makes him the only Xfinity Playoff driver with an automatic ticket to the Homestead-Miami Speedway championship next week. He is the defending winner of this week's Phoenix Playoff race. ... Cole Custer leads the standings among those still looking for a position in the Championship 4. He has a 16-point advantage on Tyler Reddick and a 34-point advantage on Justin Allgaier in fourth place -- the final transfer position. Chase Briscoe is fifth, 18 points behind Allgaier. ... Should Reddick win the title again he would become the seventh different driver to win back-to-back Xfinity Series championships. The last was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011-12. ... In 2017, William Byron won this Phoenix Playoff race and went on to capture the series championship the next week. ... Bell leads all drivers with eight victories in 2019 -- bettering his 2018 rookie season total (seven) with two races remaining. ... Among the Playoff contenders with multiple starts at Phoenix, Reddick has the best average finish -- 8.2 in four starts. Six of the eight drivers have an average finish of 10th or better. ... For the second consecutive year Bell has tallied the most Playoff wins among the eight current drivers, winning a Richmond, Va. and Texas last week. ... Bell (Fall, 2018) and Allgaier (Spring, 2017) are the only Playoff drivers with Xfinity Series victories at Phoenix. ... Allgaier has led the most laps (249) among Playoff drivers and has made the most starts at the track (18). ... Kyle Busch has the most wins (11) in this race. He is the most recent Phoenix winner, taking the trophies in both the Xfinity and Cup Series races this March. ... In eight of the last 10 races, the driver leading the most laps has won the race. ... In November, 2014, Kyle Busch led 187 of the 200 laps but finished second to Brad Keselowski. In 2016, Busch led 190 of the 200 laps en route to his 10th win. ... The pole position is the winningest spot on the starting grid producing 10 race winners. The last polesitter to win was Kyle Busch in Fall, 2016. Six of his 11 wins have come from pole position. Eight times a driver has won from the outside pole making the front row the most productive (18 wins) on the starting grid. ... The most lead changes in a race is 14 (2008-1). ... The farthest back a driver has started and won the race is 38th -- Bell in this race last year. ... NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won the first Xfinity race at Phoenix in November, 1999. .... Ford has won 13 races. Toyota has 12 wins and Chevrolet has seven. Toyota has won five of the last 10.
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: Lucas Oil 150
The Place: ISM Raceway
The Date: Friday, November 8
The Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 150 miles (150 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 150)
2018 Winner: Brett Moffitt
What to Watch For: Defending series champion Brett Moffitt holds a 10-point edge on Stewart Friesen heading into the final regular season race. Ross Chastain is third in the standings and fourth place Austin Hill holds a nine-point edge on two-time series champion Matt Crafton. Tyler Ankrum is 15 points behind Hill. The top four drivers following Friday night's race will challenge for the championship Nov. 15 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. ... Moffitt is the defending Phoenix race winner and is one of only two former winners entered this weekend, also including Johnny Sauter. ... Two-time Phoenix truck race runner-up (2017 and 2015) John Hunter Nemechek and his father Joe Nemechek are entered in all three races this weekend at ISM Raceway. ... With a win in his first start at Phoenix last year Moffitt boasts the best average finish. Among those with multiple starts, Stewart Friesen is averaging a best of 9.7. Matt Crafton is averaging a 10.0 finish and has the most starts (18) among the Playoff competitors. ... Two Playoff drives have finished runner-up at Phoenix -- Chastain in 2018 and Crafton in 2014. ... On the season, Friesen has the most top-20 finishes (20). Chastain has the most top-10 finishes (17) and Moffitt has the most top-five finishes (12) and victories (four). ... Chastain has led the most laps (555) this season. ...The driver who leads the most lap has failed to win the last four consecutive races at Phoenix. ...Kevin Harvick holds the record for wins at Phoenix (four). ... Chevrolet leads manufacturers with 15 victories. Toyota has won seven of the last eight races. ... The closest race at Phoenix was in November, 2002 when Harvick beat Ted Musgrave by .022-seconds. The next closest finish was when Harvick beat Musgrave by .212-seconds a year later ... The largest Margin of Victory was 13.186-seconds when Jack Sprague beat Joe Ruttman. ... Sprague holds the record for most consecutive wins (three) at the track. There have been five back-to-back race winners. ... The most lead changes in a race is 12 coming in October, 1998. ... The farthest back on the grid a winner has started is 16th position when Mike Skinner won the inaugural race in October, 1998. ... The front row has produced the most race winners. Six times the polesitter has won, five times the outside polesitter has won.
--Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media