NASCAR
Bob Pockrass, NASCAR 14d

Brad Keselowski in control, but final championship spot still up for grabs

NASCAR

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Brad Keselowski should control his own destiny next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, but he doesn't feel that way, even though he is on the best side of the bubble among the five drivers still looking for spots to be among the four NASCAR Cup championship finalists.

With Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch earning spots with wins and Martin Truex Jr. having enough points to fall back on if he doesn't win next week, five drivers are fighting for the one remaining spot to have a shot at the title Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

If any of those five drivers wins at Phoenix, that driver earns the final spot. If not, the spot will be determined by points. After the race Sunday at Texas, Keselowski has a 19-point lead on Denny Hamlin, while Ryan Blaney is 22 points back. Chase Elliott (49 points behind) and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (51 points behind) face virtual must-win situations, as the most points a driver can earn by finishing second is 55.

"Everybody in this round controls their own destiny if you go to Phoenix and win," Keselowski said after a fifth-place finish Sunday at Texas. "Anybody in this group can win at Phoenix. I wouldn't count past anyone."

Hamlin almost didn't have to sweat it out to next week. He was leading with 47 laps remaining at Texas but was beaten on the restart by Truex, who was then passed by Harvick with 10 laps left for the win. Hamlin settled for third and now faces an uphill battle to catch Keselowski.

"Obviously, our competitors are running up front," said Hamlin, who has a seventh and a third in the first two races of the three-race round. "We probably need to win, most likely, which is amazing. It's the second year in a row [in] the third round, where I average inside a top-five finish, and that ain't going to be good enough.

"It needs to be better. But it's about winning races. That's what we'll go next week and try to do."

With the new three-stage race format, drivers can earn up to 20 points in the opening two stages, in which the top-10 drivers get points.

"We need to score some stage points," said Keselowski, who suffered a flat tire in the opening couple of laps at Texas and had to rally from a lap down. "We really lost out on that today and probably [need to] have another top-five effort. That's kind of what we're hoping for."

At Phoenix in March, Keselowski finished fifth, while Johnson was ninth and Hamlin was 10th.

A lot has changed since then, especially with Johnson, who finished three laps down in 27th after an uncharacteristically poor day at Texas.

"It's been a good track for us, but this last half of the year has been really weird," Johnson said. "In places where we expect to run well and traditionally do, we haven't.

"But I know we're building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix, and we'll go there and fight as hard as we can."

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