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Joe Gibbs Racing puts three drivers in Championship 4

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Joe Gibbs Racing entered this weekend’s playoff elimination with only one driver set for the championship round in Miami.

After 312 laps around ISMS Raceway and a 1-2 finish from Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, JGR will make up 75% of the championship eligible drivers next Sunday (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

This is the first time in the six years of the elimination playoff format a team has had more than two entries in the Championship 4.

The victory is also JGR’s 18th on the season, which ties Hendrick Motorsports for the most in a season in the modern era.

Hamlin will battle for the title against Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. Hamlin is the only one of the four without a championship.

Hamlin’s Phoenix win came after he entered the race 20 points below the cutoff. Had he finished in any position other than first he would have been left seeing defending champion Joey Logano take his spot in the final round.

“There’s still work to be done,” Hamlin said. “Doesn’t guarantee a championship. Gives us a chance. Live to fight another day. That’s all you can ask for.”

Busch enters next weekend’s race looking to claim his second career title while also trying to end a 21-race winless steak.

Sunday’s runner-up finish was Busch’s eighth top five since he last won at Pocono in June.

Truex, in his first year with JGR, will go for a second title after he claimed it in 2017 with Furniture Row Racing. He has seven wins through 35 races, one shy of his personal best in 2017.

Neither Busch nor Truex anticipate major changes to how their teams work together in the week leading up to Miami.

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“I wouldn’t think so,” Truex said. “I feel like we’re all here because we work together. Our teams work together really well. We’ve got a great group at Joe Gibbs Racing. I would assume all the way till Sunday morning we’ll probably all work together. That’s just what I think. We’ll see what everybody else wants to do.”

Busch pointed to the the 2016 season when he and then-teammate Carl Edwards were both in the championship round.

“I wouldn’t imagine it would be any different now,’ Busch said. “It’s just a matter of all of us doing what we do throughout the week for preparation and everything, getting down there.

“Last year Martin and myself were in. I guess he wasn’t really a teammate, but in reality they kind of still were.”

Truex and Furniture Row Racing were part of a technical alliance with JGR last season before the team closed and he and crew chief Cole Pearn moved to JGR.

“We worked together all the way to Sunday,” Busch continued. “They were really, really fast and better than us. Same with Carl. He was fast that year. Then in ’17, right, when (Truex) won, we were really fast, just didn’t have track position.

“I think Denny said it best in the piece that we did for FOX, which was once you start to kind of hold back anything, then that just can kind of snowball and be bad for everybody.”

Joe Gibbs, who could claim his fifth Cup title as an owner, made clear his teams would stick together over the next week, but that there would be “some separation.”

“I think it will be an all‑out effort (at the track),” Gibbs said. “You have Harvick in the middle of it. I think it will be a great weekend.

“I do love that aspect of our sport, which is totally different. When I was in football, it’s one team; you’re trying to win with one team. This is four teams. Then when you get to the racetrack, it’s four teams competing against each other. I love that aspect of it. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Gibbs later added: “It’s a thrill for us to be a part of this. This is going to be kind of a wild week.”

Denny Hamlin wins final playoff elimination race, clinches spot in title round

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Denny Hamlin won Sunday’s final Cup Series playoff elimination race at ISM Raceway in a three-lap shootout, fending off teammate Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney and clinching a spot in the championship round in Miami (3 p.m. ET Nov. 17 on NBC).

Hamlin entered the final playoff elimination race as the first driver outside the final four by 20 points. He led 143 of 312 laps and torched the field over the final stage, lapping up to seventh place at one point.

“I can’t believe it,” Hamlin told NBC at the start-finish line. “This race team worked so hard this whole year. They deserve it. I put them in a bad hole last week (when he wrecked at Texas). I told them today … I’m going to give them everything I’ve got to make up for the mistake I made last week. That’s all I got.”

The final sprint to the finish was set up by a caution for John Hunter Nemechek with nine laps to go. Hamlin had an eight-second lead on Busch at the time. When the leaders pit, Hamlin’s team elected to take two tires along with Ryan Blaney, while Busch and the rest of the leaders took four tires.

“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that,” Hamlin said in victory lane. “I pushed for all I had. I mean, that’s all I got. Once we got the big lead there, a little over 10 seconds, I just kind of sat there. I got to thinking about if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many as I can.”

The top five was completed by Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick.

Hamlin will join Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. in the championship round, pitting three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers against Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick. Of the four, Hamlin is the only driver without a Cup title.

Defending champion Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Blaney and Chase Elliott were eliminated from contention.

With the win, Hamlin joins Harvick as the second driver to win at Phoenix in order to advance to the title round (2014). Harvick went on win in Miami to claim the title.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin won the stage in a three-lap shootout after restarting fourth following pit stops.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Joey Logano led every green flag lap in the stage to win it over Hamlin and Chase Elliott

More: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Blaney finished third for the second straight race at ISM Raceway. He ended the Round of 8 with two top fives and an eight-place finish … Kyle Larson has finished sixth or better in his last three starts at ISM Raceway … Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) earned his eighth top-10 finish in the nine playoff races so far.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: After running in the top five most of the day, Chase Elliott lost a tire and backed into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 166, ending his day with a last-place finish in 39th. He finished 32nd or worst in all three Round of 8 races … After Joey Logano won Stage 2, he quickly dropped through the field and was lapped by Denny Hamlin with 75 laps to go. He finished ninth.

“I went from a car that could lead and win a stage and run really well, and from what they told me, it was an air pressure adjustment made it go from a winning car to can’t stay on the lead lap,” Logano told NBC. “One of the tightest things I’ve ever driven.  I don’t really understand it.  It doesn’t make any sense.”

NOTABLE: Hamlin delivered Joe Gibbs Racing its 18th Cup win of the year. That is tied with Hendrick Motorsports for the most in a single season in the modern era. Toyota claimed its third manufacturer’s title in four years with the win … This the third straight season a Chevrolet driver has failed to make the championship round.

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “I was definitely not wanting to see that last caution. I would have been great with a nice, boring walk-off home run. But it did not turn out that way and forced to make a really tough decision.” — Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, on the late-race caution the resulted in the No. 11 team taking two tires instead of four.

WHAT’S NEXT: Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3 p.m. ET Nov. 17  on NBC.

 

NASCAR’s Saturday schedule at ISM Raceway

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NASCAR’s playoff weekend at ISM Raceway continues today with Cup qualifying and the Xfinity Series race.

The wunderground.com site forecasts partly cloudy skies, a temperature of 83 degrees and no chance of rain for the start of the Xfinity race.

Here’s the day’s schedule with TV and radio info.

(All times are Eastern)

9 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

12:35 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; one car/two laps (NBCSN)

1:50 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

2 p.m. – Cup qualifying; one car/two laps (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

3 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

3:30 p.m. – Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200; 200 laps/200 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Cup Series Championship 4 clinching scenarios

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It will be warm in the Phoenix area this weekend, but it will be even hotter for the six remaining Cup Series playoff drivers.

Those six drivers will compete Sunday at ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) to be the two drivers who advance to the Championship 4 in Miami with Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

Each driver could advance by simply winning Sunday’s race on the 1-mile track, but that can only be said for one driver.

At least one driver will have to advance on points.

Here are the clinching scenarios for each of the six remaining playoff drivers.

Kyle Busch (4,113 points) – Would clinch by earning 53 points and there being a new winner. If there is a repeat winner (or a win by Joey Logano), he would clinch a position having earned 34 points.

Busch enters the race as the winner of the last two Cup races at ISM Raceway, but he is winless in his last 20 starts.

“We all know (at least) one guy is going to move through on points and we have to do whatever we have to do in order to be that guy,” Busch said in a media release. “If we can obviously go to Phoenix and have a strong run and be able to go out there and win, that will put us through, as well. We’re two (points) up on (Joey Logano), so it’s going to be a race between the 18 and the 22. Imagine that. We’ll look forward to the challenge and hope we have a strong run in order to make it through to Homestead.”

Joey Logano (4,111 points) – Would clinch by earning 55 points and there being a new winner. If there is a repeat winner or a Kyle Busch victory, he would need to earn only 36 points.

Logano didn’t earn his first top-five finish of the playoffs until last weekend at Texas and yet he’s still in position to claim back-to-back championships. 

He has only one top five in his last seven starts at ISM Raceway, his win in the 2016 playoff race.

“We’ve had more blue-collar days than you can imagine throughout these playoffs,” Logano said after Sunday’s race. “We’re not locked in like (Harvick) and (Truex) but we’re not out either.

“We’ve just got to go to Phoenix and do the same things we’ve been doing. We’ve got to score stage points and get a great finish. Off we go.”

Denny Hamlin (4,091 points) – Could clinch on points, with help.

A wreck in the first stage Sunday at Texas resulted in Hamlin being 20 points behind the cutoff going into this weekend’s race.

Hamlin has only one Phoenix win, in the 2012 spring race. In the 14 races since, he has six top fives.

“I’m optimistic we can win,” Hamlin said Sunday. “We’ve been really good there for many, many years and knowing that we have to go win, it puts a very easy strategy in our hands. If anything you have an advantage with cautions coming out and some people battling for stage points, we’re going to get good track position as long as we’re competitive at the end of that race because we’re going just for that race win.”

Ryan Blaney (4,088 points) – Could clinch on points, with help.

The Team Penske driver had a win at ISM Raceway in his sights in the spring before he was overtaken by Busch and Truex in the closing laps. His third-place finish was his first result better than eighth in seven Phoenix starts.

He enters the weekend tied with Kyle Larson in points.

“In the spring race you saw a lot of cars immediately drive to the apron as soon as you crossed the start-finish line and I think that is going to be the same,” Blaney said in a media release. “You saw us four wide into (Turn) 1 on a handful of occasions. You just hope you are in a spot going forward and not getting stuck three wide. With the added downforce we’re faster there through the corners and the qualifying speeds were way up. The cars go faster and you can drive them harder.”

Kyle Larson (4,088 points) – Could clinch on points, with help.

“Our team has never made it this close to a shot at the final four, and even though we’re not in great place in the points, we’re excited about our chances this weekend,” Larson said in a media release. “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.”

Chase Elliott (4,033 points) – Must win to earn a Championship 4 position.

Elliott is the only driver who has to win Sunday to advance to Miami.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is 78 points back from the cutoff after finishes of 36th and 32nd in the first two races of the Round of 8. Elliott has managed incredible comebacks twice in the playoffs, winning at Roval in the first round and skating by with a runner-up finish at Kansas in the second round.

Elliott has two top-three finishes in seven starts at ISM Raceway.

“We’ve seen guys make up a lot of ground on restarts and the closing restarts in the past couple of (Phoenix) races,” Elliott said in a media release. “There’s a time and there are different opportunities that I think it can work better than others and it just depends on the situation and who’s in front of you and what kind of gap there is to the people around you and all kinds of situational things that you just have to make split second decisions as to what feels right and what’s not.”

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