By any measure, the 2020 season has been a strange one.
A long break to respect stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, a tightened and reorganized schedule in which momentum played a key factor, and then a playoff contest that has seen two of the most dominant drivers in recent memory struggle has defied conventional wisdom.
Two weeks ago, a non-playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time in more than 30 contests. Since NASCAR implemented their knockout playoff system in 2014, the champion has won every season finale. All four of those were run at Homestead, where a clear cut track favorite has never fully developed – in part because Homestead hosts only race per year.
Phoenix is different.
Two drivers have dominated this track in recent years. Notably, neither Kevin Harvick nor Kyle Busch is still part of the playoff system, so the odds of the 2020 champion finishing further down the order are high. Simply by being part of the Championship 4, however, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, and Brad Keselowski are much more likely to contend for the win than their historic numbers would indicate.
One way or another, the Season Finale 500k will provide a lot of storylines to carry us through the long winter ahead.
Kevin Harvick (+400) had to be salivating at the beginning of the year. If he could get to the Championship 4 in contention, this was a race that he was prohibitively favored to win. In six previous knockout chases, he failed to advance to the finale only once in 2016. Notably it was a poor performance of 20th at Martinsville that kept him from contending for that year’s Cup. Last week, Martinsville denied him again.
Although Harvick is not a part of the Phoenix 4, there is no reason to change his handicap. Listed at 4/1 to win, he sits a little ahead of the four title contenders. One suspects that spread would be much larger if Harvick was actually part of the championship battle.
From 2012 through 2016 Harvick scored six wins and two second-place finishes in eight starts on this minimally-banked course. In the seven races since then, he’s added one more victory, four more top-fives, a sixth, and a ninth. He has a current streak of 14 consecutive top-10s and no one believes he will do anything except contend for another victory this week.
Best Bets for a top five
Longshot alert: Kyle Busch’s (+800) season has been so erratic that oddsmakers aren’t quite certain what to do with him. They look at the dominance of title contenders in the finale, know that Harvick is an obvious favorite, and seem to have pushed Busch down to the sixth-ranked position as a result. That heightens his odds and makes him an interesting bet because he drags his top-three odds to +250 on another sportsbook. Busch has not finished worse than third in his last five Phoenix races and he won back-to-back events in fall 2018 / spring 2019.
Chase Elliott (+500) beat our expectations last week. While we thought he would finish somewhere in the top five, it seemed unlikely that he would win on a course where he had only two previous top-fives. This week, we are of the same mind. Elliott has only two top-fives at Phoenix as well, but one of these was a clutch second-place finish in 2017. He needed a win to advance and couldn't quite run down Matt Kenseth – who had recently been eliminated from the championship hunt. This week, a top-three finish could be enough to give him the championship. At PointsBet Sportsbook Elliott and Hamlin are co-favored to win the championship with +240 odds.
When Joey Logano (+600) won the 2018 championship, he quipped that it was the “Big Three plus Me”. He should not have run as well as he did in that race because it had not been a particularly good track type for him while Martin Truex Jr., Harvick, and Hamlin had been dominant on 1.5-milers. Logano guessed on the right setup and was best on short runs. This year he will garner a lot of attention since he won the spring FanShield 500k in overtime. Last year, both of his efforts landed on the high side of the top 10, however. Logano is listed at +260 to win the championship.
When we were thinking about Phoenix earlier in the playoffs, we expected the race to come down to Hamlin (+475) and Harvick – and that would also be a battle for the championship. Both of those drivers struggled throughout the playoffs and slightly worse results in any of the three races would have kept Hamlin from contending for the Cup and allowed Harvick in. We think that will hurt Hamlin’s odds of winning this week even though he swept the top five last year and won in the fall. Three of Hamlin’s last six Phoenix races ended outside the top 10.
Best Bets for a top 10
There are only five top-five positions. Sounds simple, right? But that means someone is going to just miss out on the top spots. One of the four title contenders will also be the furthest down the order; it’s simple math. By the numbers, that would seem to be Brad Keselowski (+540) since he has only one Phoenix top-five in his last six starts. He finished second in fall 2018 and his only other top-10 in that span was a 10th last fall. Keselowski has the longest odds to win the championship as well at +300.
Longshot alert: Clint Bowyer (+7000) is out to have fun this week. He has only one more race before he pulls the ripcord on his full time career and heads to the broadcast booth. Just look at last week’s back-and-forth contact between him and teammate Aric Almirola, however, and you’ll come to realize that even though he’s having fun, he wants to run well and end his career on a high note. A win is probably out of the question, but Bowyer finished fifth in this spring’s FanShield 500k and on another sportsbook, his odds for a top-five finish are +650.
Exceptional Value: Ryan Blaney (+1400) is one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. He enters the weekend with five top-10s in his last six starts this season and finished second to Elliott last week on the minimally-banked Martinsville course. In 2019 he finished third in both Phoenix races, which snapped a streak of four consecutive sub-15th-place results. This spring he was flying high before he crashed on Lap 65 and failed to finish the FanShield 500k.
Frankly, we’re not accustomed to seeing much fire out of Almirola (+4000). Last week, apparently impatient with being held up, he spun Bowyer out of his way. Bowyer retaliated later in the race and the two went on their merry way without significant damage to either car. Almirola finished seventh for his first top-10 in the last six races. The takeaway was the there is a little spirit in the racer in the cockpit of the No. 10 and that is what is needed on a driver’s track like Phoenix. Almirola has two top-fives and five top-10s in his last six starts there.
Same song, new verse: Kurt Busch (+3500) remains one of the most consistent drivers in the field. He isn’t challenging for victories, but he does have top-10s in half of his last 18 starts this season and in every other Phoenix race dating back to a 10th in spring 2018. His last three fall races have ended outside that mark, but he came close last year with an 11th.
Jimmie Johnson (+6000) has one last opportunity to win. It won’t happen but it will be fun to watch him try on a track where he has four previous trophies.
Phoenix has not been particularly kind to Alex Bowman (+4000). He has only one top-10 there in 10 starts, but he cracked the top 15 this spring.
He failed to advance to the Phoenix 4 and that will take some wind out of Truex’s (+900) sails. There is also the possibility that he will have to start in the back again since this team has a propensity for coloring outside the lines.
If Hamlin was frustrated with Erik Jones (+6000) racing him last week, he could be equally annoyed at Phoenix. Jones has absolutely no reason to listen to team orders with one race remaining before he’s officially fired. He finished seventh in last year edition of this race.
Dark horses don’t run particularly well at Phoenix, but Matt DiBenedetto (+8000) has beaten the odds a few times already in 2020. He finished 13th in his last two starts on this short, flat track.
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