Race Capsule: Rain gets Earnhardt Jr. Phoenix win, decides who goes to Miami
Flag to Flag: The Quicken Loans for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway had the trimmings of an ideal race: drama-filled because of Chase implications, potentially good racing on a unique one-mile track, good weather in the desert in autumn, and shorter than other most races on the schedule. Unfortunately, the day fell short on all notes.
Rare rain pushed the race back from a scheduled approximately 2:40 p.m. ET green flag to just after 9 p.m. Surprisingly, many of the fans in the grandstands stayed to watch what was sure to be an exciting race. Jimmie Johnson (5th) started on the pole and was the early race leader. But Kurt Busch (7th) actually beat Johnson to the start-finish for the start of the race. NASCAR explicitly said in that day's driver's meeting that the
But Busch, fast in practice through the weekend, stayed on the lead lap after the pass-thru penalty and stormed up through the field to about 11th. He pretty much needed to win the race, so having such a setback early could have been fatal for the No. 41 team, but they fought back.
For most of the race, the eight Eliminator Round Chase drivers ran in the top 15. Johnson led after Busch's penalty until the competition caution on lap 40. But then he sped on pit road and started from the back, handing the lead to Phoenix juggernaut Kevin Harvick (2nd).
Harvick then held the reins the rest of the night, leading 143 laps in total. Harvick did not need to win to advance in the Chase, as his points standing was comfortable, but he was a favorite and a winner of the previous four contests in the Avondale, Arizona track. He only lost the lead during
As most of the leaders finished their pit stops, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (41st) reportedly lost his brakes and slammed Joey Gase (42nd) into the wall, bringing out a yellow.
Harvick, Joey Logano (3rd), Kyle Busch (4th) and some other front runners had already pitted and were at the tail end of the lead lap. Jeff Gordon (6th), who had not pitted, would have taken the lead when he crossed the finish line. But Dale Earnhardt Jr., had just entered pit road as the leader and was far enough ahead of Gordon to finish his service and cross the start-finish line still leading. There's the race right there.
Carl Edwards (12th) had run in the top 5 the entire race, but was behind after his pit stop and got the free pass on the yellow. He entered the race just a few points shy of the 4th-place cut off and remained four or five points from that spot all night. Edwards ran the whole event just ahead of behind Kyle Busch (4th) and Martin Truex Jr. (14th), his closest competitors in the points. Truex Jr. was a lap down after his pit stop and took the free pass, so both he and Edwards would each have several cars to pass before they could even pass drivers for
The cleanup for Gase's destroyed No. 32 Ford took nearly 20 laps under yellow, which is unheard of. This allowed the approaching rain to get to the track and eventually drench it. NASCAR kept the cars on the track under yellow as the rain picked up, but the track was lost again. Very soon after throwing the red flag, NASCAR determined there was not enough dry time to get the race in reasonably and they called it, handing Earnhardt Jr. his third win of the year.
The racing action before the rain really did not amount to much, with the leaders checking out on the rest of the field and most cars remaining single-file and spread out. But with rain on the way, the final restart could have proven very exciting as Edwards and Truex Jr. raced for their lives and Logano and Ku. Busch tried in vain to claw to the front and get a much-needed win. That never happened. The points entering the race stayed mostly the same, the driver predicted to dominate did, and the wait was excruciatingly long. The race ended with more to be decided, much like Talladega and that is a shame.
The biggest excitement was the fact that fan favorite Earnhardt Jr. secured the third-straight win for Hendrick Motorsports, after an epic dry spell for the powerhouse organization.
The top 10 were Earnhardt Jr., Harvick, Logano (started 14th and never showed to be very fast all weekend, needed a win to advance in Chase, and was in
RaceTweet: Rain gets the Phoenix win for Earnhardt Jr.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kevin Harvick - He didn't necessarily need to win, but many expected him to and he probably would have. He led almost 100 laps more than anyone else. His 2nd-place finish was remarkably his 12th runner-up of the year.
North Korean Missile Dud: Brad Keselowski - Not that he had the stats to be a front-runner at Phoenix, you just had to figure that the No. 2 would be in the mix for the win, because it had to be. While Ku. Busch and Keselowski's teammate Logano each had cars that seemed to be fast enough to run with the leaders, Keselowski was close to 12th or 13th all night and got close to being lapped before the final caution. When NBCSN interviewed No. 2 crew chief Paul Wolfe during that exhaustingly long final yellow flag, Wolfe looked and sounded defeated. No. 2 spotter Joey Meier asked Wolfe if he could see Keselowski's struggle with the handling on his view of the in-car cam. Meier noted that the car was tight and Keselowski's correction on the exit of one of the corner's was the reason why they did not have speed. Unfortunately for them, the adjustment made on the final pit stop never got put to use. Usually the No. 2 team is clutch, but not Sunday.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kurt Busch - Both Busch and Johnson got penalties and drove back into the top 10 after getting them. But Busch made up 15 spots under green after his pass-thru penalty in the opening laps and then made up another few spots on pit road and then eight or so more on the track. If the race ran the full distance, Busch likely could have caught Harvick, Logano, and Earnhardt Jr. and battled for the needed win. His performance, while falling short in the end, was clutch. And Busch never did lose his mind on the team radio after his penalty - a mental stamina that kept his race together.
Ghost Driver: Sam Hornish Jr. - While his teammate Aric Almirola was busy running top 15, Hornish Jr. turned in yet another disappointing run. The No. 9 car ran the whole race mired with C-level teams, finishing 31st, four laps down. Team owner Richard Petty told the media this weekend that the No. 9 car will run next season, but Hornish Jr. will not remain as
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Justin Allgaier - There really isn't a good candidate for this, as none of the smaller teams ran well. But Allgaier gained a few spots with the shuffling in the final pit sequence and finished 17th and a lap down, a decent finish for HScott Motorsports.
Wheel of Misfortune: NASCAR (and anyone involved in the sport) - The sport can't catch a break this season. There have been distractions with scary crashes at Daytona, domestic violence allegations and a suspension, and numerous rain-impacted races. Krista Voda on NBCSN said that this was the eighth Sprint Cup race day affected by rain. Eight out of 35 - that's a bad clip for a sport that only has one race per week. While the Sprint Cup Series raced in Arizona on a rainy night, the Arizona Cardinals played outdoor football on a dry night in Seattle. That's just bad luck. For all the mistakes NASCAR has made this year, there also has just been really bad misfortune. The race ran late and moved from highly-watched NBC to NBCSN, which is not available in many homes. And then after they battled issues drying the track for hours, the race runs past halfway and rain comes again. NASCAR could use a break...and there is rain in the forecast for Homestead.
Jimmie Johnson Golden Horseshoe: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He was as fortunate at Phoenix as he was unlucky at Talladega. Earnhardt Jr. led 21 of his 22 laps of the day on that final yellow and got the lead by happening to be on pit road during a yellow. That's pretty fortunate. He should pass some of that leprechaun dust to NASCAR for the race next week.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: There are many things that NASCAR needs to work to fix and the proficiency of cleaning up the track surface should be on the list. This is the fourth different Chase race where there have been issues cleaning up the track. Remember Charlotte? Earnhardt Jr. complained of oil still on the track after a blown engine. At Martinsville, Ky. Busch claims his spin was because of water seeping from the curbing at the bottom of the corner. Kevin Harvick said that NASCAR didn't clean the track properly after Logano's blown tire at Texas, causing his own flat tire. And Sunday saw the cleanup crew take 20 laps to clear one wrecked
Georgia On My Mind: David Ragan struggled mightily all weekend at Phoenix, starting the race 29th and staying near there for most of it. Ragan got two laps down at one point, but the last pit stops and the caution during them got Ragan up to only one lap down and 18th at the finish. Ragan's final race in the No. 55 car in the final race for Michael Waltrip Racing as an organization will be next weekend.
Saturday's Xfinity race saw Kyle Busch yawn his way into Victory Lane and the championship race not get any easier for Chase Elliott. He finished 7th and points leader Chris Buescher 13th, cutting the lead to 18 heading into the final race at Homestead. Buescher only needs to finish 14th or better next week to win it and that's only if Elliott wins and leads the most laps - unlikely. Buscher and Elliott have had nearly identical seasons: Buscher's two wins, to Elliott's one; each has 11 top 5 finishes; Elliott has six more top 10 finishes (26); and each has a nearly identical average finish (Buescher's 8.3 to Elliott's 8.9). Take Buescher's average finish difference (.6) and multiply that by the number of races (32) and you get 19.2. He leads by 18 points, so that makes sense. Elliott is only four points ahead of Ty Dillon and six ahead of Regan Smith in the standings, so there is still is plenty to race for.
Ryan Sieg had another solid race, finishing 16th. And he is nearly a lock to finish 11th in points. Korbin Forrister ran his second-career NXS race, placing many laps down in 32nd.
Friday's Camping World Truck Series race saw Timothy Peters win, as leaders Erik Jones and Matt Crafton wreck. John Wes Townley had another strong run in 3rd and his team chose again to skip the NXS race. Townley is only two points back of Daniel Hemric for 7th in points, with two races to go. Forrister crashed and finished 30th, as did Brandon Jones, who placed last in 32nd.
NXS RaceTweet: Kyle Busch leads a ka-jillion
NCWTS RaceTweet: Timothy Peters ends up with the Phoenix trophy after titlists Jones and Crafton wreck. Crafton won't win
Next: All three of NASCAR's national series race in Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The SCS title race is Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBC, MRN, and Sirus/XM 90. NXS' final race runs Saturday at 2:45 p.m. on NBC, MRN, and Sirius/XM. And the NCWTS championship is decided Friday at 8 p.m. on FS1, MRN, and Sirius/XM.