Here’s the situation: On Sunday, Phoenix Raceway will play host to the Can-Am 500 Cup race, which will determine the final four drivers at Homestead. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. already know they will compete for the title, no matter what happens at Phoenix.
In the battle for the fourth and final Cup title slot, Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, leads Hamlin by 19 points right now and Ryan Blaney by 22 points. Chase Elliott (-49) and Jimmie Johnson (-51) almost certainly will need to win on Sunday to make the final.
But Hamlin is in a pretty good spot right now. He qualified his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in second place, 14 spots ahead of where Keselowski will start
In Saturday morning’s first practice at Phoenix, Hamlin was fifth fastest to 21st for Keselowski. And in the second and final practice in the afternoon, Hamlin was eighth, directly ahead of Keselowski and Blaney.
Keselowski still has the upper hand, of course, with his 19-point lead over Hamlin, but he is by no means safe, especially if Hamlin can get some early stage points on Sunday.
“I mean, we beat him (Keselowski) by 15 points last week and he only finished two spots behind us, so I mean it’s possible for sure,” Hamlin said when asked if he thought he could get to Homestead on points. “It just depends on how the first part of the race plays out, honestly.”
But with a variety of strategies likely to come into play on Sunday, Hamlin and others are scratching their heads somewhat about what will happen at Phoenix.
“Who knows how it’s going to turn out? Honestly, there’s … four of us that need to feel like we need to win to get in,” said Hamlin. “Like I say, until the first half of the race plays out, we don’t know what we need to do. I think we’ll have a better idea after those first two stages. But then I think it’s what strategy do you take for that final restart – do you stay out or do you pit? It definitely has the potential to be pretty crazy on restarts knowing that you have some agendas out there that will be a win or nothing.”
For Keselowski, the mindset is much the same. “We’ll see how that all plays out. It’s hard to predict the race,” said Keselowski. “I think we’re right on that cut mark. It could go either way and we’re gonna leave it all on the table come tomorrow.”