Race Capsule: Harvick's Phoenix gets him to Homestead, Chase also a story Saturday
Flag to Flag: 18 points separated the eight drivers remaining in NASCAR's Eliminator Round after last week's crazy race at Texas Motor Speedway. The Sprint Cup Series left Phoenix International Raceway after Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 in almost the same shape - but only four advanced. Kevin Harvick entered the race last in points and six points out of the Chase cutoff. He had won the last two Phoenix races and could only guarantee a berth in this coming Sunday's Chase finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway by winning this race - did he ever. Harvick took the lead for the first time on lap 44 and only ceded it for only five laps the rest of the way. Starting 3rd, the No. 4 Budweiser Chevy was extremely loose on the first run, but Harvick stayed in the mix for the lead with fellow Chasers Joey Logano (6th) and polesitter Denny Hamlin (5th). Hamlin led the first 24 laps of the race, before Logano took some laps up front. During the first caution period Hamlin's tire went flat when a crew member's air gun somehow knocked out the valve stem. Hamlin restarted about 40th and eventually got lapped. Then Logano had to start in the back of the pack on a restart when he left he dragged the gas can from his pit stall near the race's halfway point. Logano also lost a lap like Hamlin, as both of their cars struggled in traffic and dirty air. The rivals battled each other hard for the free pass position to get back on the lead lap. A debris caution on lap 202 got Logano back on the lead lap and a yellow-causing wreck on the ensuing restart cycled Hamlin back around. They then drove through the field to salvage their days and their seasons. Jeff Gordon (2nd) stayed in the thick of things all race, but after his poor finish after late trouble at Texas last week, he was only one point to the good at 4th in points entering the race. But Harvick's win and Ryan Newman's (11th) closing laps resurgence meant no room in the Homestead Four for the four-time champ Gordon. At the checkered flag, Gordon and Harvick ended up tied in points, but Harvick's win clinched him the spot at Homestead.
Newman struggled all day, but entered the race 11 points ahead of 5th-in-points Matt Kenseth (3rd). Still, Newman ran in the back of the top 20 early in the race and was only 15th with just a handful of laps remaining. But the debris caution with 12 laps to go gave Newman a chance to stay out when others pitted, so he gained track position. He still fell back and was one point behind Harvick and Gordon or 4th in points heading into the final lap. With Kyle Larson (13th) and Marcos Ambrose (10th) racing side-by-side, Newman caught up to them and started reeling in Larson. In the final turns on that white flag lap, Newman dive-bombed the corner, side swiped Larson, and got the spot to move a point ahead and into the top 4 or Homestead. Kenseth stayed near the front much of the day, but too many other Chasers were running too well for him to capitalize and his No. 20 just wasn't good enough to win.
Brad Keselowski (4th) was also close to where he needed to be most of the race, but not good enough to win and was in the same trap as Gordon and Kenseth - neither of which found any reason to exact revenge on the driver with whom both have brawled in this Chase. Carl Edwards (15th) entered the race tied with Kenseth for 5th in points and just one from 4th, but struggled all day and was the lowest-finishing Chase driver. The top 10 were Harvick, Gordon, Kenseth, Keselowski, Hamlin, Logano, Kurt Busch (strong in entire race in midst of domestic violence allegations), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (quietly consistent, but not a factor to win), Greg Biffle (was lapped early, but made a nice comeback on the late restarts), and Ambrose (second top 10 since Watkins Glen in August). So Harvick, Hamlin, Logano, and Newman each roll into Homestead tied in points, just having to finish ahead of the other to win their first Sprint Cup title.
RaceTweet: Harvick punches Homestead ticket, by dominating Phoenix. Hamlin, Logano advance. Newman moves Larson to get last spot.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kevin Harvick - Was the best car for 90% of the race, leading 264 of 312 laps. Harvick's No. 4 team has finally figured out how to close the deal and even the questionable debris caution with 12 laps to go couldn't slow them down.
North Korean Missile Dud: Carl Edwards - His tremendous comeback at Texas last week put life into the No. 99 team's last championship run together. Edwards' two wins at Phoenix meant there was a chance, with some luck, that they could race their way into Homestead. It wasn't to be as Edwards was invisible all day and finished 15th. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig won't get a championship in his last season (though he's won before with Kurt Busch in 2004) and Edwards will have to try again for his first next year with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Really, no one. There weren't any small time teams in the top 15. A.J. Allmendinger stayed on the lead lap and was 16th and a nod goes to Front Row Motorsports' David Gilliland and David Ragan, who were 24th and 25th and the last two cars on the lead lap and the last two free pass winners.
Ghost Driver: Tony Stewart - He has won a race every season since his 1999 rookie campaign, but is winless in this fruitless 2014 campaign. Sunday, the only way we knew the No. 14 was in the race was because it was on the leaderboard. He was invisible and has showed again that much is missing from this team, driver, or both. Stewart finished 20th.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano - They each fell victim to poor racing luck on early pit stops. each got lapped, and each had to slice through some good lead lap cars to finish in the top 10 and secure finishes in the championship finale. That rebound-ability and good fairy dust are good championship qualities to have for next week.
Wheel of Misfortune: Casey Mears - Mears was a prime candidate for the "Underdog" award, but didn't get the chance to follow through on his early fixture in the top 10. Mears spun around and barely into the inside wall on lap 82. He finished seven laps down in 35th.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Ryan Newman's move on Kyle Larson to drive in to the Chase - This move of desperation was not much different than Brad Keselowski's move at Texas that cut Jeff Gordon's tire. In each case, they saw an opening and went for it. Newman knew that he needed that spot to get into the Chase and knew that Larson was racing for less, so he sailed his car in the turn, used Larson as a wall, and got the spot. Larson did leave a hole, so to speak, and Newman went to try and fill it. That's what has to be done with so much on the line. With only four drivers racing for the crown at Homestead, those moments could be few and far between. But when they present themselves, expect all four drivers, especially Newman, to throw the Hail Mary and make the move. Newman's choice is worth questioning, but certainly was justified.
Georgia On My Mind: This one is all Chase Elliott. His Nationwide Series title appeared more and more inevitable as the last couple of months wore on, but it all culminated in a Phoenix clinch on Saturday. All the 18-year-old rookie had to do was finish ahead of teammate Regan Smith: Elliott was 5th and Smith 10th. In some ways, his title isn't that surprising to those like me who have watched him race on short tracks. In good equipment, he won dozens of races and some titles over his five years racing late models. He won a Camping World Truck Series race and an ARCA race in 2013. When the deal with NAPA and JR Motorsports came together in the offseason, it seemed like the perfect marriage for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. But still, Elliott was joining a series that was being revitalized with money and talent. 2014 was supposed to be the "Year of the Nationwide Series Regular" with several big name multi-teams fully stocked. But Elliott beat them all and scored three wins of his own, beating some of the best in the Sprint Cup Series that dipped down to race in his league. Elliott went tat for tat and better not just with fellow rookie Ty Dillon, but veterans Smith, Brian Scott, and Elliott Sadler. The points were close at different times, but Elliott seemed to have them covered with solid finishes and near-perfection each week. Elliott's championship is the first for a Georgia driver in a NASCAR national series since 1988. He will certainly be a Cup driver in the next couple of years and it's not far off to expect early success in the big leagues. Here's his 2014 line: 32 starts, three wins, 16 top 5s, 26 top 10s, average finish of 7.8, only one finish not on the lead lap, and zero DNFs. That's smooth. Whether you are a Chase Elliott fan or not, you have to tip the cap to a young driver who elevated JR Motorsports to a level which it hasn't been: champion. Congrats to Elliott, his family, and his team. What a ride!
The other Georgia drivers had a tough weekend overall. David Ragan placed 25th in Sunday's Cup race, with Reed Sorenson notching 28th. Saturday's race (besides Elliott) saw Ryan Sieg run 20th and John Wes Townley 23rd. Brad Keselowski won the race by passing Kyle Busch on the last restart. Friday night's bizarre NCWTS race won by Erik Jones and delayed and shortened by the lights going out twice and numerous cautions was also not great for the Georgia gang. Youngster Brandon Jones, who in 2015 will run some races for GMS Racing in Trucks and Richard Childress Racing in the Xfinity Series (now Nationwide), ran in the top 10 much of the race and finished 12th in the No. 33 Chevy. Jody Knowles' No. 80 Ford benefited from the high attrition rate and placed 22nd, four laps down. Wendell Chavous, who also ran the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Phoenix, finished his 2nd-career start in the NCWTS 27th, 46 laps down in Mike Harmon's No. 74. And John Wes Townley's poor string continues. A first lap crash ended his day in 33rd with only one lap completed.
NNS RaceTweet: Kez passes dominator KyBusch to win Phoenix, but the big story is Chase Elliott becoming the first rookie title winner in NASCAR history.