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5 things to watch for in today’s Sprint Cup race at Phoenix


during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 14, 2015 in Avondale, Arizona.

Jonathan Ferrey

AVONDALE, Ariz. - Kevin Harvick’s bid for a fifth consecutive win at Phoenix International Raceway could be undone by a Stewart-Haas Racing teammate.

Kurt Busch, all but needing a victory to advance to the championship round and seek his second career Cup crown, has been fast all weekend and showed his strength in both practice sessions Saturday.

In the first session, he posted the fastest average over 10 laps and 15 laps. In the final session, Busch ranked third in average speed over 10 laps and second over 15 laps.

“What we have to do this week, we have to win,’’ Busch said, explaining his focus. “A top-five isn’t going to be good enough.’’

While Busch has excelled, Team Penske’s Joey Logano (who must win to advance to the championship round) and Brad Keselowski (who likely needs a win to advance) have not been as strong. Both cars lack speed.

“We have an equal opportunity to win the race, just like everyone else does, and to win these championships you have to win races,’’ Keselowski said. “Our opportunity is there. It’s a short race, and it’s a track I feel comfortable on and now we just have to put it together.”

Today’s Sprint Cup race on NBC will whittle seven title contenders to the three who will race Jeff Gordon for the crown next weekend in Miami.

Who advances and who doesn’t will be among today’s storylines:

BETTER THAN BEFORE: When the Cup series last raced at Phoenix in March, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota left defeated. The top Toyota finisher was JGR’s Carl Edwards in 13th. Denny Hamlin, who finished 23rd that day, was blunt in his assessment: “We sucked. All of our cars suck right now.’’

Things have changed. While the JGR cars are not dominant, they’ve shown better speed, and that could help Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards advance to the championship round.

“After the spring, it was frustrating enough that we really understood where we lost ground and where we were struggling, so we worked on all those things,’’ Edwards said. “I don’t know why, for some reason as an organization … JGR has had a lot of trouble here recently. In a way, it’s probably good we ran that poorly in the spring because it really brought everybody’s focus around.”

SHORT RACE: Today’s race is 312 laps and is among the shorter on the circuit. That will challenge crew chiefs, forcing them to make strategy plays earlier.

“The shorter distance changes a lot because if you have an issue it’s that’s much shorter time to overcome it, and this track is definitely difficult to do that anyways,’’ said Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., who is seeking his first appearance in the title round.

A big issue is how many tires to take, either two or four.

“This is one of those tracks on the circuit that it’s a really tough balance between track position and tires,’’ said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Erik Jones, who is filling in for the suspended Matt Kenseth. “From a crew chief’s standpoint, it can be a tough one to call.’’

NON-CHASE DRIVERS: Jimmie Johnson, who isn’t eligible for the championship, prevented a title contender (Keselowski) from winning last week at Texas and earning a spot to Miami. Could a driver not eligible for the crown play a role in who wins or who advances to the championship round?

PIT ROAD: While a shorter race means fewer trips to pit road, challenges remain at Phoenix, and a mistake here could cost a victory or a spot in the championship round.

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