AVONDALE, Ariz. — The drama is building just as NASCAR hoped it would as the Sprint Cup Series moves to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend and stock-car racing’s championship battle nears its climax.
There are eight drivers still eligible in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup playoff and that number will be slashed to four after the Phoenix race, with those four deciding the title at the season finale Nov. 16 in Florida.
The battle has reached a fever pitch that was evident with the post-race brawl on pit road Sunday in Texas between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski and their crews.
NASCAR suspended four crew members — three from Gordon’s car and one from the car of Gordon teammate Kasey Kahne — who jumped into the fray at Texas Motor Speedway.
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, and Keselowski, who won the title in 2012, are among the eight drivers still in Chase contention. The others are Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.
If any of those eight wins at Phoenix, he would automatically be among the final four racing for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The three others with the highest points in the Chase also would advance.
If none of the eight Chase racers wins at Phoenix, the top four in points in that group would advance to the final round. And only 18 points currently separate all eight. Drivers can earn up to 48 points in a single race.
“It’s going to be more intense,” Hamlin told reporters this week. “You’re going to have eight guys that have a shot at making it.”
NASCAR fans will be watching to see if the bad blood at Texas carries over to Phoenix, especially if it involves Keselowski, a Team Penske driver who has increasingly drawn the ire of other drivers this year with his aggressive racing style.
Gordon was incensed at Texas when Keselowski tried to drive between the cars of Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who were leading, near the race’s end.
The contact cut a tire on Gordon’s car, which then spun, leaving Gordon with a 29th-place finish. Johnson won, followed by Harvick and Keselowski.
Keselowski has a Series-high six victories this year but enters the Phoenix race seventh in the standings, 17 points behind his teammate Logano and Hamlin, who are tied for the lead.
Harvick is a favorite to reach the Chase’s final four with a win at the one-mile oval track, where the Bakersfield native often raced early in his career.
Harvick has won three of the last four Cup races here, including the spring race this year, and overall he’s won a record five Cup races at Phoenix.
But some of the other eight drivers still in contention also have fared well at Phoenix. Former winners there include Edwards (2010, 2013), Gordon (2007, 2011), Hamlin (2012) and Newman (2010).
NASCAR adopted a four-round, knockout-style format for the 10-race Chase this year in a bid to boost the drama surrounding the playoff.
The Chase began with 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated after every third race. Among the popular drivers who have been knocked out are Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
In turn, a driver who wins a race during each round automatically advances to the next round. The idea was to give drivers a greater incentive to win races during the Chase rather than merely collect points.
“With this format you don’t feel like you are ever secure unless you win a race,” Keselowski said.
Yet it’s still possible that this year’s champion could do so on points alone. Two of the eight Chase finalists, Newman and Kenseth, have yet to win a Cup race this season.