This week's thoughts on the NASCAR Round Table from Motorsport.com heading into Phoenix International Raceway.
1. After many in NASCAR circles predicted two or more Joe Gibbs Racing drivers would make the final four at Homestead, there's a chance that Carl Edwards will be the only one of the four to make it to the Championship 4. Is that a big shock and what exactly has happened to their drivers in the third round of the Chase?
Jim Utter: Last week I had predicted just one Gibbs driver would make it to the Championship 4 - Kyle Busch. With the Edwards win, I think it's likely they will get two now but three is still a legitimate possibly. Looking at the drivers who have scored the most points so far in the Chase, Busch and Matt Kenseth ranked in the top four, so as far as the Chase goes, they still have been among the most consistent performers even as Kyle says they are "flying under the radar."
Lee Spencer: It’s a big shock that Edwards was the first Gibbs driver to transfer — particularly after the whole the No. 19 team dug at Martinsville. I certainly did not have Edwards in my final four of the two Gibbs drivers I thought would make the cut. I still believe Gibbs will add a second driver to the Homestead-Miami mix on Sunday.
Nick DeGroot: I think it's just telling how competitive this Chase has been. There is no room to stumble as shown with Truex's elimination during the second round. But regardless, JGR can hold their heads high knowing they are guaranteed at least one shot at the title come Homestead, but I expect one more of his teammates will sneak in and join him.
Tim Southers: Well I predicted Matt Kenseth would advance and it’s looking like a long shot for that to happen. After Carl Edwards’ win last week in Texas, it will take nothing short of a win and a runner up finish to advance. While I feel this race is Kevin Harvick’s to lose anything can still happen, which makes this Chase exciting to watch. I would be surprised if another JGR doesn’t make it to Homestead, but with the points so tight it wouldn’t be a big shock.
2. Has the 2016 Chase been a disappointment so far or have there been some surprises this year?
Jim: I think the level of drama or "excitement" is in the eye of the beholder. I think if you told fans and media Martin Truex Jr. would already be eliminated from title contention, they would consider that a surprise, but the method it happened was one of self-infliction rather than an incident with another driver, and thus much less "dramatic." There have been no serious feuds between Chase drivers this year, which in all honesty, is what most people believe they have missed out on.
Lee: Both. The Chase has not delivered the drama it has in the past. I expected Talladega to be epic. It wasn’t. I expected over-the-top action at Martinsville. There wasn’t. I’m hoping something happens at Phoenix that will redeem NASCAR’s 2016 playoffs. If not, the point system will have to be restructured to put greater emphasis on wins. As for surprises, certainly the early exits of Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski would qualify. To have two four-time winners knocked out of the second round was a shocker.
Nick: The Chase has been fairly straightforward with no major 'wow' moments, but plenty of drama from an impartial perspective. The points are close and the battles on track enthralling, showing that you don't need those co-called wow moments to make a great postseason. The story lines are plentiful with Johnson going for a historic seventh title definitely standing out to me.
Tim: Watching a heavy favorite like Martin Truex Jr. fall out of the Chase provided newsworthy moments and surprises, but there has not been that ‘Wow’ moment yet in this year’s Chase that has everyone talking at the water cooler. I do feel with the pressure going into Phoenix, someone’s actions on the track could light the fireworks fans have been waiting to see this year.
3. Can anyone beat Kevin Harvick at Phoenix? If so, how big of an upset will it be if Harvick doesn't win at PIR?
Jim: Let's not forget Harvick only won in the spring at Phoenix in a photo finish with Edwards. Certainly, the JGR cars were strong in that race - Busch led the second-most laps behind Harvick. Although I still think Harvick goes into the race as a favorite, I would not be surprised with another JGR driver winning the race.
Lee: Yes. Both Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards are two of the three drivers to stop Kevin Harvick at PIR in the last 10 races. Edwards has momentum coming off of his win at Texas and has won twice at Phoenix since 2010. An Edwards win would not be an upset at this point. After the rain returned at Texas, Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers confidently told the No. 4 team, “We’ll go to Phoenix and win one.” This weekend, that’s precisely what they need to do if Harvick hopes to continue his streak as the only driver to transfer to all of the Championship 4.
Nick: I will be utterly shocked if Kevin Harvick doesn't win at Phoenix, which likely means he will be eliminated -- He's never failed to advance to the Championship 4 before. But if he does lose, I honestly believe something will have to go awry to deny him. That could be a mechanical gremlin, a crash, or a fellow competitor successfully shoving him out of the way like Carl Edwards nearly did earlier this year. There's going to be a lot of desperate people in the penultimate race of the season...
Tim: Two Chase drivers (Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin) have both won recently at PIR and could certainly do it again. I still feel, as Harvick showed in his win in Kansas earlier in the Chase, when his back’s against the wall there’s no one more focused in the seat. Barring a mechanical issue – Harvick wins and continues his streak of making Homestead in title contention.
4. Do you expect any Clint Bowyer-Jeff Gordon incidents this weekend at Phoenix? If so who's your money on to be in the scuffle? Speaking of Harvick, he might have one coming after punting Austin Dillon at Texas. Kyle Busch hasn’t been happy with his teammates lately. We’ll see whether a detente was reached at JGR last week or if it was just talk.
Jim: I think the most interesting dynamic to watch at Phoenix will be if the JGR drivers not yet locked in at Homestead end up batting among themselves again for track position in the race's waning laps. So far the "teammate" issues have been verbal in nature only, but if someone gets "bumped" out of the Championship 4 on the track, anything is possible.
Lee: Speaking of Harvick, he might have one coming after punting Austin Dillon at Texas. Kyle Busch hasn’t been happy with his teammates lately. We’ll see whether a detente was reached at JGR last week or if it was just talk. Read more about the Harvick-Dillon incident from Texas HERE.
Nick: Like I said above, there will be a lot of desperate and stressed out drivers. The inner-team battle at JGR will be very interesting, as will the interactions between Chasers and non-Chasers with nothing to lose. Personally, I think there is more of a chance for a Bowyer/Gordon-esque incident between a title hopeful and a non-Chaser.
Tim: I think the pressure will get to one or more of the drivers trying to make it to Homestead which could create taking big risks and chances that could affect another driver’s chances. I’ll be glued to the television waiting for it to happen late in the race.
5. Daniel Suarez leads the Xfinity Series points standings after Texas. In this challenging climate in NASCAR this year, how big would it be for a native of Mexico to win the title? Will this be good or bad for NASCAR?
Jim: It would be huge for Suarez personally, first. People forget he has given up a lot to spend most of his time in the United States competing while his family remains in Mexico. With the recent revival of the NASCAR Mexico Series, a national series championship by Suarez would show those in that series that there is a path for them into the NASCAR national series, which can only help NASCAR as a sport in the long run.
Lee: It would be huge for Suarez to win the title regardless of the current climate in NASCAR. He would be the first Drive4Diversity graduate to win a title on one of NASCAR’s top tours. Suarez has blossomed during his short time in NASCAR and would be a great ambassador for the sport. Read more about Suarez leading the NXS points after Texas HERE.
Nick: This would be beyond fantastic for NASCAR. It would give the sport an obvious boost and show that there is a way for foreign born racers to make it to the pinnacle of stock car racing. It's not a pipe dream. And giving NASCAR an international flare with a Mexican champion at the national level can only serve to help in the growth of the sport.
Tim: I think the former NASCAR Drive For Diversity and NASCAR Next driver would help break through and show the world you don’t to be born in America to win in this decidedly American sport. It will also be good as NASCAR renews the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series and gets a Mexico-based series going again which will be good to help NASCAR continue to grow internationally.