AVONDALE, Ariz. — With three berths in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race already spoken for, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have limited options if they hope to arrive at Homestead with a chance to win the series title.
In fact, they have only one realistic option if they hope to advance from the Round of 8: Win Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway (on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET).
That’s not the case in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, where 57 points separate first-place Elliott Sadler from eighth-place Ryan Reed. No XFINITY driver comes to Phoenix with a guaranteed spot in Championship 4 event.
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Sadler, William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Brennan Poole currently are above the cut line, but Matt Tifft, Cole Custer and Daniel Hemric are five, 13 and 18 points, respectively, behind Poole in fourth — deficits that could be erased in the first two stages of Saturday’s Ticket Galaxy 200 (on NBC at 3:30 p.m. ET).
That makes the approach to the race a bit more complicated than the one facing the Cup drivers on Sunday.
“I don’t want to say take the race on the fly, but that’s kind of how you’ve got to approach it first,” said Hemric, who drives the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. “When we get on the track here, how our speed is will translate into the approach and the plan for the rest of the weekend. Depending on where you are on that side of it, that determines how aggressive you can be with your strategies and your tires and how many tires and all that stuff.
“Knowing that there are four spots — at any second, a flat tire, somebody spins and gets into the fence, anything that can happen … the next thing you know, it can bring a little more life to somebody else’s day, and it’s like ‘Oh, gosh, we’ve got hope,’ and that hope brings intensity and brings aggression.”