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Who will claim the last spot in NASCAR's championship race?

Brendan Marks, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Auto Racing

Five drivers, one spot, one race. One last chance to make it to Homestead.

One last chance to race for a championship.

That's the state of the NASCAR playoffs heading into Phoenix this weekend. Kevin Harvick clinched his spot in the final four with a win at Texas. Martin Truex Jr., whom Harvick passed for the lead at the end, also advanced on points. Kyle Busch's win at Martinsville two weeks ago qualified him, too.

Which means for five drivers -- Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin -- this weekend's race at Phoenix is their last chance to make it to the championship. Basically, win and you're in. Or the reverse, however you want to think about it.

Now, it isn't guaranteed that one of these five will win at Phoenix. In fact, given their collective track records there (only Johnson and Hamlin have won there, and neither in the last five years), there's a decent chance none of them wins and the last spot comes down to points.

But that's hypothetical -- and no fun -- so instead, let's forecast the odds for each driver making it to Homestead, from least to most likely. Remember, these are highly scientific projections:

-- Chase Elliott (5 percent): It's possible a driver makes it to the final four without winning a race all season, but it's not likely. Elliott's had a good year, he has the brightest of futures, and after his incident with Hamlin at Martinsville, he's a fan favorite. He just isn't ready to truly compete for a title.

-- Ryan Blaney (10 percent): Blaney at least got a win this season, and he ran well at Phoenix in the spring despite finishing poorly. He's been fast at times this postseason, especially lately, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which he beats out the rest of the field to get in.

-- Jimmie Johnson (15 percent): Maybe this is too generous for Johnson, who hasn't won a race since Dover in the spring. But it's just impossible to count out arguably the greatest driver of all time. Johnson has won at Phoenix before, too, even if it's been a while. Points won't be enough for him to get through -- it'll take a win, which he just may not have in him right now.

-- Brad Keselowski (30 percent): Keselowski is fourth in points, so if he runs well at Phoenix, he has a good chance to advance to Homestead even without a win. Of course a victory would be nice, but Keselowski has never won at the track. He should push for stage points and hope that's enough to get him through to Homestead.

-- Denny Hamlin (40 percent): The driver with the best chance to actually win at Phoenix is probably Hamlin. He hasn't won there since 2012, but he's finished in the top 10 each of his past four runs there. Add in how well he's been driving lately, including a third-place finish at Texas, and Hamlin has the best chance to make it to Homestead. Now, if he will or not is a different story.

(c)2017 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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