Brad Keselowski isn't comfortable trying to protect points advantage
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Brad Keselowski doesn't think he can afford to play defense.
But the question remains whether he'll have a good enough No. 2 Team Penske Ford to mount a strong offensive in Sunday's Can-Am 500 (on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET) at Phoenix Raceway.
Entering the final event in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff, Keselowski is fourth in the standings with a 19-point edge over fifth-place Denny Hamlin.
Three of the four positions in the Nov. 19 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway already have been locked up by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and series leader Martin Truex Jr. Yes, Keselowski has a significant advantage entering Sunday's race, but that's where the good news ends-at least for now.
In Friday's knockout time trials, Keselowski was the only Playoff driver who failed to advance to the final round. He'll start 16th, 14 spots behind Hamlin and 15 behind pole winner Ryan Blaney, who starts the race at a 22-point deficit to Keselowski.
In Saturday's first practice session, Keselowski struggled early but found some speed late in the session. He ended the 55-minute practice 21st on the speed chart and 10th in fastest 10-consecutive-lap average.
"We've been kind of up and down," said Keselowski, who improved to ninth in final practice. "We didn't start practice the way we wanted, but we ended really close."
Even with a points advantage, however, Keselowski has to worry that Blaney, Hamlin, Chase Elliott or Jimmie Johnson could win Sunday's race and knock him out of the Playoff. That's why he doesn't consider defending his lead a viable strategy.
"I think the 11 (Hamlin), the 24 (Elliott) and the 21 (Blaney) have shown that they can win the race, maybe even the 48 (Johnson), so it would not be a good play to be on defense," Keselowski said. "I'm going to try to win the race."
CHASE ELLIOTT'S APPROACH TO PHOENIX IS SIMPLE-WIN OR BUST
Unlike Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney or Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott doesn't have a realistic chance to advance to the Championship 4 on points-and he knows it.
"Our task at hand is pretty simple," said the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, who trails Keselowski by 49 points for the final spot at Homestead. "We have to win the race to move on next week. Everybody in here knows that. We know that and we are going to try to attack the weekend as best we can.
"Hopefully, give ourselves a chance to do that Sunday afternoon and see what happens. That's pretty straightforward what we have to do with the situation we're in now. It's not the most ideal situation, but if you were able to pull it off, it would be a lot of momentum moving into next week. We'll give it our best shot and see what happens."
Elliott got off to a strong start on Friday afternoon with a fourth-place qualifying effort. He was second fastest behind Kevin Harvick in Saturday's first practice session but dropped to 17th in Happy Hour when the one-mile track at Phoenix Raceway got hotter and slicker-closer to the conditions he'll face in Sunday's Can-Am 500.
Elliott was within four laps of winning the opening race in the Playoff's Round of 8 at Martinsville when Hamlin drove him into the Turn 3 wall. But Elliott would prefer not to dwell on what might have been.
"You can play the game of 'what if's,' but unfortunately for our circumstances, this is a sport of do's and don'ts and we have not," Elliott said. "I've said that before. It's just the facts. What happened last week or a month ago or the beginning of the season or having an opportunity to win and not-it's nothing you can change now.
"I think you just have to understand whatever position that you're in and hope that you learn something from that experience to know that, if you're ever in that position again, you can change the outcome."
Members of the JR Motorsports pit crews of NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoff contenders Elliott Sadler, William Byron and Justin Allgaier were stranded in Little Rock, Ark., on Saturday when the ConSeaAir charter that was bringing the teams to Phoenix was diverted because of a mechanical issue. Coincidentally, Sadler was sporting an aircraft company (Cessna/Beechcraft) as primary sponsor on his No. 1 Chevrolet for the first time this season. The JRM teams had to use makeshift crews to pit their cars during Saturday's Ticket Galaxy 200...
Eight-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick paced both Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practices on Saturday, topping the speed chart at 134.328 mph in the morning session and leading Happy Hour at 134.973 mph. Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who needs a victory to advance to the Nov. 19 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, posted the fastest 10-consecutive-lap average in final practice at 133.549 mph.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---