This weekend will see the fourth and final Chase cut-off moment of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, with the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway set to decide which four of the eight remaining drivers still in contention will face-off for the championship at the season finale the following week.
It's a do-or-die moment for all of the Chase contenders, any of whom could still make it all the way to the title decider after last week's race at Texas closed up the standings to the point where it's all far too close to call. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin are tied at the top of the points but are just two ahead of Ryan Newman, while Kevin Harvick might be bottom but he' still only 18 points away.
Moreover, Harvick might have a major advantage with this week's race being held at Phoenix, since the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has won here three times out of the last four visits. He was also second last week at Texas Motor Speedway, so if there's a man looking on a roll and set to be in the mix at the chequered flag then it's surely Harvick.
"You really have to have an understanding of the track," he replied when asked what the secret of his success at the one-mile, low-banked tri-oval was. "Every time we go back, I feel like we learn something different. The track is still racy enough where you can make up time if your car is good, but you need to stay focused on strategy.
"The track has definitely changed since the repave a couple of years ago," he added. "The weather really helps wear the track. It's incredibly hot in the summer and can get really cold in the winter, so there are some pretty extreme temperatures that have helped to age the asphalt. It's been an interesting track to race on under both configurations, but I think it's even more exciting now, and most of that comes from having the design right."
Meanwhile Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon will be looking to bounce back from the controversial end to his race last weekend at Texas which saw him spun out late in the race by contact with Penske's Brad Keselowski, which subsequently resulted in a post-race brawl between the two teams on pit road.
"Track temperature plays a huge role at Phoenix," said Gordon, turning his attention firmly to the upcoming challenge. "The track was repaved several years ago but we're now starting to see the groove widen out and we're seeing a lot more passing.
"Qualifying is still going to be very important, though," he pointed out. "Your pit stall selection [which is based on qualifying results] is crucial because typically there are not a lot of pit stops during that race and you spend very little time on pit road."
Also firmly still in the Chase running is Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman, who is second in the standings just two points behind Logano and Hamlin despite having his own disappointing end at Texas on Sunday, which saw him finish outside the top ten for the first time since New Hampshire.
"Really it's about having fun," Newman insisted. "[Crew chief] Luke Lambert, our entire team and the entire organization at Richard Childress Racing are doing an awesome job. We've all been having a lot of fun because we get to go out there and do what we love to do.
"It's been a lot of fun for me, so I think it's helped with our consistency," he said. "I think it's helped with our performance and I think I have stepped it up. I think the guys on pit road have stepped it up, as well as the guys in the garage. We are doing better things with the tools that we have. ECR and those guys have also stepped it up."
JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmendinger and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson both hail from nearby California, which might afford them a little edge in terms of local knowledge racing in the dry, hot, dusty conditions found in Arizona and around the south west quarter of the United States.
"When we first arrive at Phoenix International Raceway, the track has a lot of dirt on it," said Allmendinger. "We spend the first-half, maybe three-quarters of practice just cleaning off the track.
"It is a track that has a lot of grip especially if it is a little cooler there," he continued. "You spend a couple practice sessions with a lot of grip. Then by Sunday morning, if it gets a little warmer with the sun sitting on the race track and just that desert air, all that grit and grim gets on the track.
"When they drop the green, it's really dirty. It's just trying to keep up with the track conditions and usually what happens with the track is that it starts to widen out a little bit, but if you get offline it's really dirty. So, you can easily make a mistake and kind of get up in the dirt and maybe into the fence. More importantly, you can just lose a lot of track position by doing that."
"I'm looking forward to getting on track at Phoenix this weekend with a little more experience under my belt," said Larson, now just one race off finishing his rookie season after taking over the #42 car from Juan Pablo Montoya last winter. "When we raced there for the second event of the year, we had a car with really good speed and were able to get a top-ten starting position, but some handling issues early in the race cost us too many position and got me a lap down early.
"The whole team has definitely grown a lot since then and we've learned how to work well together, so I feel like we should come away with a much better result this time in the Target Chevy," he pledged. "We also have a large group from [sponsors] Target in town for the race, so I'm looking forward to a good run as a way of saying thanks to them for all their support during my first season with the team."
Also born and raised around these parts is Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas in neighbouring Nevada. Like Harvick and Gordon, he is interested to see how the new repave is continuing to bed this year.
"I hope it aged a little bit so then we can all race a little bit better," said Busch, who won both the Nationwide and Truck races at Texas last weekend and finished fourth in the Cup race. "It's been a little bit difficult to pass, it's felt like, still, and getting into turn one has been a little bit slick. I think that's kind of always been the tradition at Phoenix.
"I think it should be a good one, hopefully, and we just need to get a little bit better," he added. "We weren't great but we weren't terrible there in the spring so, hopefully, we can run up front like we did there last fall and get us a win this time."
Kyle's brother Kurt is also a native of these parts, and the former Cup champion said he was looking forward to the visit to Phoenix this weekend. "I've only got the one win there, but it's a racetrack that I usually qualify well at and lead some laps, but struggle to close the door at the end," he said. "To be able to close the door at the end, you have to be able to anticipate the shade coming into turns one and two, which makes that end of the racetrack fast, while turns three and four are still in the warm sun, so the racecar will be a little slick down there.
"Since the repave, I haven't been able to do the best job of getting the grip out of the race car that I've been looking for," he added. "So that's the objective this time around, to utilise an experience level like Tony Gibson has with that style racetrack, and a fresh outlook."
Gibson will be undertaking his second race as Busch's crew chief this weekend after the new partnership's inaugural rollout last weekend at Texas. Gibson has moved over from the #10 car of Busch's team mate Danica Patrick, who in turn has Busch's former crew chief Daniel Knost working with her again at Phoenix.
"It's always fun to go to Phoenix," said Patrick, who will once again be in the familiar lime-green livery of primary sponsors GoDaddy who are based in Phoenix. "I'm fortunate that we get to race in GoDaddy's hometown twice a year so we get to visit them and have them at the track. I think it's really important and it's nice knowing I've got a lot of fans pulling for me at the racetrack."
This weekend's race is also a perfect opportunity for some of the teams further down the standings to finish off their year in style and steal some of the limelight off the Chase contenders.
"I always enjoy the Phoenix trip, the area is really nice and I really like racing there," said Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing #1 car. "It will be nice to try and finish off our season with two more strong runs like we had at Texas this past weekend. We had a really good car the first race in Phoenix [in March] with a top-ten finish and a really good qualifying result."
"Trying to manage rear grip is the key and probably the most challenging thing about that track, especially since the repave a couple of years ago," contributed Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer. "You will be racing along and your car is stuck like glue, then in an instant the rear end wants to jump out and you're really in trouble because without much banking in the track, there is no give in it. You either have grip or you feel like you are racing on ice. Trying to manage that rear grip level and keeping your tires underneath you is hard to do there, so that's what we will be working on all weekend in practice."
"The race should have plenty of excitement as drivers who are in contention for the Eliminator Round try to clinch a spot for Homestead, but we have nothing to lose," added RCR's Austin Dillon. "Phoenix is a handling track where it's crucial to have a car that works well during the race. I know [crew chief] Gil Martin and the guys will give me exactly what I need heading into the race. Getting off of each corner is important, and so is corner entry."
"Phoenix has been a good track for me over the years," contributed Martin Truex Jr., who will once again be behind the wheel of the #78 Furniture Row Racing car for Sunday afternoon's race. "Since they repaved the track it's changed quite a bit with the backstretch being completely different than what it used to be, that's the biggest change.
"The track is wearing in well and starting to lose a little bit of its grip which is good for the racing. It's also a difficult track to get around just because both ends of the racetrack are different. Turns 1 and 2 are like Richmond and Turns 3 and 4 are like New Hampshire," he said. "I look forward to going back to Phoenix. We are getting better and the guys are bringing good race cars to the track ... The cars are faster and that translates into having a lot more fun at the racetrack."
"We're looking forward to getting to Phoenix this week and having a strong run," added Casey Mears. "Our focus at Germain Racing is finishing the season strong and we've had solid runs at Talladega, Martinsville before the crash and at Texas. We finished 14th at Phoenix in the spring, so we're hoping we can duplicate that effort, if not better it."
Meanwhile it will be a poignant race for Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose - his last visit to Phoenix and his penultimate race in NASCAR Sprint Cup as a whole before he quits the series and returns to Australia to race in V8 Supercar with Team Penske. Before he does so, he'd really like one more crack at picking up the oval win that's eluded him all until now.
"In my time here, I've seen plenty of excited NASCAR fans," said Ambrose. "And let me tell you, they have passion! They cheer for their favorite driver, favorite team, and in our case, their favorite 'King' [RPM team co-owner Richard Petty].
"It's been a pleasure and an honour to race all across America for them, hear them and try to give them some excitement. And, yes, even when we go out west, the fans are great. They love NASCAR, and I've been fortunate to see friends there and make new ones.
“Every motorsports fan is passionate, but with NASCAR it's a whole other level," he added. "They buy your shirt, wear your hat, support our sponsors and everything. It's great and that's a lot of fun to be a part of. They are cheering for you, in most cases, and you want to deliver for them. I give it my best each week, hopefully I've given them some highlights, and maybe we can make more memories this weekend."
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+2) Joey Logano 4072pts
2. (+3) Denny Hamlin 4072pts
3. (-1) Ryan Newman 4070pts (-2pts)
4. (-3) Jeff Gordon 4060pts (-12pts)
5. (-1) Matt Kenseth 4059pts (-13pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4059pts (-13pts)
7. (--) Brad Keselowski 4055pts (-17pts)
8. (--) Kevin Harvick 4054pts (-18pts)
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