Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix

Key MomentJeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer, collecting Joey Logano and Aric Almirola as the field was coming to the white flag. The result was a green-white-checkered finish, one that saw Danica Patrick wreck on the first of two laps, lay down a large amount of oil on the track, then cause a complete melee on the front straight as the cars came to the checkered flag. The final wreck tore up over half-a-dozen race cars while the incident between Gordon and Bowyer set off a rumble in the garage, one reminiscent of the Tide team vs. the Kodiak crew at the 1989 Winston.

In a Nutshell – For Phoenix, the word “wild” doesn’t do it justice. For NASCAR officials, some controversial moments that will be argued well into the coming week. For the championship? Perhaps the moment Brad Keselowski sealed the deal.

As far as the win was concerned: Kyle Busch led two laps short of three-quarters of the race. But when the big check was in sight, it was Kevin Harvick who got the better of Busch on a restart with seven laps to go. Harvick then took the outside on a green-white-checkered restart, making it work to score his first win since Richmond last year.

Dramatic Moment – With 77 laps to go in the race, Jimmie Johnson blew a right front tire and pounded the outside wall. He was forced to the garage to fix the car and ended the event 38 laps down in 32nd position. When the dust had settled, Keselowski finished 20 points ahead of Johnson heading into Homestead and only needs to finish 15th to win the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship.

Oh, and did we mention there was a brawl? And a multi-car wreck on the last lap? Take your pick during any of the last half-hour of actual NASCAR competition.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Who saw this one coming? Johnson has always been the one to withstand every challenge and not break under the pressure of the title Chase. Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Gordon, and Matt Kenseth have all failed to make Johnson buckle. But this year, it was Johnson who faltered and has now opened the door for Keselowski to control his own destiny while the five-time champion has to hope for some serious help to win his sixth title. After the race, Johnson said his chances were way, way out of his control as this misfortune will likely prove decisive, especially in a playoff format where one moment of bad luck turns into a deficit impossible to make up.

Gordon often comes across as a mild-mannered sort, one who isn’t going to ruffle anyone’s feathers and very well just might be playing out the string in his illustrious career. Sunday, though we saw a glimpse of Gordon’s dark side, one that only rarely bares its head. Having been put into the wall off of the side of Bowyer’s car, failing to wreck him immediately afterward, Gordon rode slowly around the bottom of the track, waited for Bowyer to catch up to him, and then wrecked him intentionally in turn 4 coming to the white flag lap. Gordon and Bowyer’s teams had a heated scrum in the garage area, with the No. 15 crew guys jumping Gordon as soon as he exited the car. Taken by surprise, the driver ran, hid in his hauler and then spent quite some time with security personnel while officials intervened to clear the fracas. Eventually, they escorted him out after the incident and provided protection despite Bowyer’s track-and-field run to punch his rival at the hauler. It will be interesting to see what happens on Tuesday from a fine and penalty perspective, but it’s unlikely that this incident is far from over. You don’t take a driver’s title chances away — however remote they are for Bowyer — and expect to walk away unscathed.

Keselowski has been known to speak his mind from time to time. It’s not like he doesn’t have a filter; he most definitely takes the time to think about his responses to questions before making statements. That said, the driver with the inside track for the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship did not hold back in his post-race interview. Keselowski pointed out that he was raked over the coals for the past week about racing so hard at the end of the Texas race, being accused of having a death wish, and driving “like an a#%hole.” He noted that the actions at the end of the Phoenix race were “f$%#ing ridiculous” and that the drivers involved should be ashamed. The can of worms that could be opened by this tirade is mind-boggling. In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 25 points and it very well cost him the title that season when he cursed on national television. Keselowski’s recent interview wasn’t on broadcast TV, but it is already on YouTube and you can bet it will probably go viral. That will place NASCAR in the tough situation that they found themselves in with Kurt Busch, Dr. Jerry Punch and Bob Pockrass. Imagine the storm of controversy that will open up if they drop a number of points off of Keselowski’s total heading into Homestead. Here is the link to the post-race interview in case you haven’t seen it.

Michael Waltrip was interviewed after the incident between Bowyer and Gordon and he called Gordon’s maneuver “chicken” and “disappointing from a former champion.” Interesting to hear someone who rarely spews anything but the NASCAR company line actually step up and call out a former champ.

NASCAR continues to step on their own toes by trying to have races finish under green while preaching the safety mantra. With the cars of Gordon, Bowyer, and Joey Logano sliding toward the wall in turn 4, Harvick went under the white flag only to be told on the back straight that the caution lights were on first so he hadn’t, in fact, won the race. Then, on the green lap of the green-white-checkered finish, Danica Patrick went for a spin in turn 3, sat in the racing groove for some time, then pulled away and spewed oil in the groove. With the white flag out, NASCAR chose not to throw the caution and end the race. The result was cars sliding and bouncing off of each other, coming out of turn 4, total carnage on the front straight, and everyone breathing a sigh of relief that no one was injured. Ryan Newman was drilled by oncoming cars after his came to a rest in the middle of the track. Patrick, almost completely stopped on the inside of the front straight after crossing the finish line, was plowed into by Paul Menard. Patrick’s car bounced off the top of Menard’s car before bouncing off the top of Kurt Busch’s flaming car. The real irony of it all was listening to Dale Jarrett, who was the reason that racing to the caution was eliminated and the Lucky Dog was implemented, chastise NASCAR for not throwing the caution and causing such a mess at the end of the race.

Harvick was looking to be the topic of conversation after this weekend due to reports coming out that he will be driving for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. By winning the race, that discussion might die down just a little bit, but it will certainly pick up over the offseason. Harvick spent most of last year showing up at the end of races to score wins after not being near the front for the majority of events. This year, he managed to make the Chase but has been a complete afterthought before this weekend. There was actual discussion last week that he might be passed by Earnhardt Jr. in the standings by the end of the year, even though Earnhardt missed two of the Chase races. Now, there will just be a year of debate and discussion about Harvick and Childress, “lame duck” status, who will go into the No. 29 seat and what will happen with Jeff Burton, who has largely been believed to just be keeping the seat warm for Austin Dillon.

Speaking of Burton, what a fiasco of a weekend the No. 31 team had. Burton wrecks his primary car before qualifying, then kills his backup car, and the team has to rebuild his primary car. Burton started at the back of the pack, nearly wrecked it during the race, dumped Patrick on the white-flag lap, but managed to come home in 13th. It’s not like he came back and won the race, but considering his average finish this year is 19.6 and it was his best finish on a non-plate track since Richmond, it had to feel pretty good.

On Saturday, we saw the Nationwide Series title battle all but settled after Elliott Sadler stepped on it late in the race at Phoenix. Sadler started his raceday off poorly by wrecking in qualifying and forcing his team to a backup car. The team struggled all day to get the backup to handle well and also dropped the ball on multiple pit stops which made the race all the more of a challenge for Sadler. With the race winding down to the final two laps, Sadler made a move to try and gain a spot on the back straight and ended up wrecking himself and Cole Whitt. The end result was that Sadler’s car was a rolling wreck for the last lap on the track, he lost a lap and came home in 22nd place. He is now 20 points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and has to hope for a major mechanical issue on the No. 6 for a shot to win the title. Say what you want about Stenhouse and Sadler, the bottom line is that Sadler has shown, over the last two years, that he’s not a finisher. Depending on where he ends up next season, we may never see him get another chance to be this close to a title again.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Johnson had a tough turn of events that very well may have been self-inflicted. Johnson’s car was definitely not in the same league as Kyle Busch, Harvick, or Keselowski; but it was still a top-10 car which would have had him neck-and-neck with Keselowski heading into Homestead for Championship Weekend. Johnson made a surprising error in judgment, pushing his car harder than he should have, and melted the bead on the right front tire. The championship most likely went out the window when the No. 48 made contact with the fourth turn wall.

Logano was minding his own business coming to the white flag, positioned for a possible top-five finish, when he was collected in the Gordon/Bowyer flap and ended the day in a crumpled heap. There are plenty of racing incidents that end up collecting people who have nothing to do with it but you never expect it to be precipitated by a four-time champion simply wrecking another competitor out of spite. Logano ended the day sending out a tweet that said: “When I was young I thought @JeffGordonWeb was the best driver. Now I’ve lost a lot of respect for him. #verydumb”

For the eighth race in a row that Kyle Busch has led the most laps, he did not win the race. Busch was dominant for the majority but after a Sam Hornish Jr. brush with the wall late brought out a caution, Busch chose the inside lane for the restart and Harvick made the outside work to take the lead. In the end, Busch couldn’t challenge and even lost second place to his teammate Hamlin.

Martin, Kurt Busch, Menard, Newman, Keselowski, Greg Biffle, and Edwards were all caught up in the enormous wad at the end of the race thanks to the oil left on the track from Patrick. While they all made it across the finish line, it was some tremendous carnage that did not need to occur.

Martin Truex Jr. started on the outside of the front row and completed a whole lap before his engine started to lay down. He ended up completing just 10 circuits before he took the car to the garage and retired for the day. It was just another disappointing finish in the 2012 Chase for the No. 56.

The “Seven Come For Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Harvick has had a long season without very many high points. In a throwback to 2011, Harvick was nowhere in contention for most of the day, but when Hornish had his incident Harvick restarted on the outside of Kyle Busch and made it stick going into turn 3. He then held off Busch and Hamlin to score the first victory for RCR since Bowyer won at Talladega last fall.

Kasey Kahne made a push to the front early in the race but didn’t make it all of the way to the point. Still, when the mess broke out on the front straight he was just in front of Newman who triggered the whole fiasco, leaving his car clean to come home a quality fourth. With Bowyer’s mishap, Kahne is now third in the points heading into Homestead.

Although Johnson obviously had a bad day thanks to coming home in 32nd, he did actually gain a finishing position thanks to the race going extra laps. David Ragan fell out of the race after a blown right front killed his car. Johnson’s crew got him back out and he completed just enough laps to overcome Ragan for 32nd. Although he’s 20 points out of the top spot now, if things line up in his favor in Homestead that one point could be huge.

Kurt Busch had a vibration issue early in the race that put him a lap down. He was the Lucky Dog when Johnson had his problem, giving the No. 78 team a chance to roar their way back through the field. It came at a cost; coming to the checkers, Busch was caught up in the debacle and ended up crossing the line on fire. But the final result – eighth – means back-to-back top 10s with a Furniture Row team which is suddenly looking feisty heading into 2013.

Worth Noting

  • Harvick’s win is the 19th of his Cup career.
  • This is Harvick’s third career win at Phoenix in the Cup Series.
  • Hamlin’s second-place finish was his 10th top two of the season and his seventh career top-five result at Phoenix.
  • Kyle Busch came home in third place for his ninth top three of the season and his third career top five at Phoenix.
  • Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing rookie in 35th position.
  • Harvick’s Chevrolet was the first of five bowties in the top 10. There were three Toyotas, one Dodge, and one Ford to round out the list.
  • The Busch brothers finished in the top 10 for the second straight week, although this week there were three other non-Chase drivers in the top-10.
  • Logano took the checkered flag first in the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix for the ninth time this year.
  • Keselowski and Stenhouse Jr. both have 20-point advantages heading into Homestead for championship weekend. James Buescher leads in the Truck Series by 15.
  • Keselowski and Stenhouse can win their respective title by finishing 15th no matter what their closest competitor can do.

What’s the Points?

Keselowski looked to be in trouble heading into Phoenix based on historical data. Well, that’s why they run the races. Johnson’s flat tire relegated him to a 32nd-place finish while Keselowski used fresh tires near the end of the race to slice through the field and come home in sixth place. The difference leaves Keselowski 20 points ahead of Johnson heading into Homestead. No one else in the Chase is mathematically eligible to win the title so it is a two-horse race (which we’ve told you for the last month). 15th place without leading a lap gives the title to Keselowski no matter what Johnson does (that drops to 16th if Keselowski leads a lap and 17th if he leads the most). In reality, this trophy is Keselowski’s to lose. He’s only had one finish outside the top eight, and that was 11th at Charlotte. It would seem like finishing 15th should be a layup but, again that is why they run the races.

Kahne is third in the point standings, but 50 outside the top spot guarantees he’s out of the title hunt. Bowyer, who was mathematically alive before Gordon turned into Steve Wallace, is now 52 out and playing for third at this point. Hamlin is 62 back and can only hope to make it past Bowyer and Kahne for third in points. Lame duck Kenseth is 74 points out of the top spot and probably doesn’t have much of a shot at getting above fifth. He only has a four-point advantage over his teammate Biffle, who is 78 points away from Keselowski.

Harvick pulled himself back up to a table in Las Vegas by winning in Phoenix and vaulting from 11th place to eighth. He is one point ahead of Tony Stewart, whose hopes at repeating at the Cup Series champ went up in “smoke” about the time the series pulled out of Dover. For now, Gordon sits three points behind Stewart as the last driver going to the banquet in Vegas. It is possible that could change on Tuesday when NASCAR announces penalties. The last two drivers in the Chase standings are Truex Jr. and Earnhardt Jr. The former teammates are sharing the caboose on the playoff train and, barring a great run by Truex at Homestead, they’ll both spend the banquet week at home.

For the non-Chase drivers, it is Kyle Busch who is going to end the season in 13th position. He is 82 points ahead of Newman for the Mr. Irrelevant spot in the point standings.

Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): While the lack of lead changes early on in the event kept the race from being a six-pack effort, there was more than enough at Phoenix to make it a five-beer winner. Johnson blows a tire and has to battle to come home 32nd. Gordon loses his mind and wrecks Bowyer and Logano right in front of Keselowski coming to the white flag. The pit crews for the No. 15 and No. 24 throw down on pit road with guys knocking over tires, crew members shielding their driver and Bowyer running a 150-yard dash to be stonewalled by a stocky NASCAR official. Gordon ends up having a police escort to his bus so that he doesn’t get his ass whipped by any of 100 different people in the garage. Harvick makes an aggressive outside move to take over the top spot and holds on to win his first race in 44 tries while half-a-dozen cars ended up in a finish line melee that saw four of them hauled off on the hook. What more do you want?

Next Up — The longest season in professional sports comes to an end as the checkered flag flies in Homestead. The pomp and circumstance associated with champions being crowned and the extensive media coverage associated with it will go on for several hours, followed by a week or two of the Cup champ making appearances on a plethora of television shows. Whether you are happy or sad to see the season come to an end, we’ll at least see the titles settled on the track in all three national series in Homestead.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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