Key Moments – Denny Hamlin was a lap down more than once in the race thanks to a flat tire and a two tire stop that resulted in his car being less than competitive with the faster cars. Hamlin was granted the Lucky Dog under the third and seventh cautions of the race. The No. 11 team not only worked tirelessly to make Hamlin’s ride better but they put him in position to contend at the end of the event and, as a result, they are in the mix for the title next week in Homestead.
In a Nutshell – Phoenix was Kevin Harvick’s world and the rest of the Chase drivers were just squirrels trying to get a nut. Throughout the race, while Harvick was in or near the lead, the other drivers both in the Chase and outside were facing different challenges that tested their intestinal fortitude. At the end of the day it was Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman joining Harvick in the final four heading to Homestead with a chance at the series title. The other drivers are merely racing for a trophy and momentum heading into the off season.
Dramatic Moment – As the final lap unfolded, Newman, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon were all in the mix to make the final four. As the contenders headed to the line, Newman moved Kyle Larson to advance a position and that was enough to put him in the mix at Homestead and drop Gordon back a spot and out of contention for his fifth series title.
What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler
The single biggest topic this week will be the validity of the entire culmination of the championship Chase next week in Homestead. Every fan of the sport knows the rules changed this season. Most people don’t like it based on comments and general conversations but every driver knew the rules when the season started and they’ve raced their way to this point with the happenstance possibilities foremost in their minds. The series has one finalist who has fewer top 5s than one of the other finalists has wins. Another finalist scored his first top 5 of the Chase at Phoenix this week and has an average finish during the Chase races of 12.44 over the nine events. The driver with the most wins and tied for the most top 5s, the driver tied for the most top 10s and tied for third in the series in wins and two of the other three drivers tied for third in wins are on the outside looking in. In the end, one of four drivers will leave Homestead with the cup that isn’t a cup and forever be known as the 2014 Cup series champion.
NASCAR wants to be like the other stick and ball sports. This week they ended up on another list with those other sports thanks to Kurt Busch being accused of domestic violence. An incident was reported this week that allegedly took place at Dover seven weeks ago in Busch’s motorhome. Busch maintains that he’ll be vindicated when the facts come out. Hopefully this will be tried in the justice system and not in the court of public opinion although the mainstream media has not proven the ability to do that in recent incidents in the sport.
Many NASCAR fans have not been on the earth long enough to remember when the metric system wasn’t being foisted upon the residents of the United States of America. In the 1960s a push was made to try and move the U.S. to the metric system but it still hasn’t taken hold. The U.S.A. Is the only major industrialized nation to have not adopted it as the official measurement system. With that said, we need to stop naming races 500s when they are only 312 miles long. It is disingenuous to the true 500 mile races and is simply wrong in a country that refuses to accept the metric system. While we’re on the subject, it has been said here before that all Cup races should be 500 miles or more. Yes that is 993 laps at Martinsville and 199 laps at Sonoma. This sport is supposed to be a test of the combination of man and machine and that needs to happen for 500 miles every week.
Hopefully we did not see a foreshadowing of the final laps at Homestead during the end of the Nationwide race on Saturday. As Kyle Busch drove through turns three and four heading to the white flag, Alex Bowman ran out of gas and slowed on the track. With the No. 54 some 200 yards from the flag stand, the caution flag flew. The result of the race is inconsequential. The problem is that the outcome of a race was altered over a caution flag that was completely unnecessary. If NASCAR is going to look for any reason whatsoever to throw a yellow in the final laps at Homestead next week, the previous 40 weeks of the Cup season will have all been for naught.
Congratulations to Chase Elliott on winning the Rookie of the Year and series title in the Nationwide series. It is a great story and an indicator of the future of the sport. One word of caution to everyone his is ready to crown Elliott the next dominant superstar in the sport. While he is a tremendous talent and proven he has the mettle to win a championship at the national touring level, he’s not the only outstanding wheel man on the horizon. Erik Jones is just one example of the kind of talent Elliott will be battling for years to come. While Elliott has four wins in national touring series events in NASCAR, he has 41 starts. Jones has four wins but he only has 20 starts. Past performance is not a direct indication of future success but people just need to temper their enthusiasm for Mr. Elliott a little bit before the put him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame next season.
The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune
Clint Bowyer has had a season that most any driver would rather forget, and Sunday was no different. Bowyer had contact with both the wall and Paul Menard. He was then caught up in a wreck with Kyle Busch that sent him into the wall and ended his day. If anything could happen to Bowyer this season it nearly did. He didn’t flip or hit any wildlife but he’s had most everything else go wrong this year. There are very few people in the garage who will be happier to see the checkered flag fly at Homestead.
The entire year hasn’t been bad for Jimmie Johnson but the last half of the year has been rather forgettable. Sunday was the epitome of how poorly the year is closing out for the No. 48 team. The car had a short circuit somewhere during the event which resulted in several pit stops. The car also received damage on the right front from pit road contact with Justin Allgaier that added poor aerodynamics to the difficulties. In the end his car had a failure, pounded the wall and finished the race in 39th position. This season is going to be the worst finish in Johnson’s career in the points and will certainly give the six-time champion the motivation to come back with a vengeance in 2015.
It is extremely rare that a driver finishing in second place receives an award for foul fortune but Jeff Gordon is in the category this week. Gordon finished second at Martinsville and Phoenix. Unfortunately for the four-time champion, he finished 29th at Texas. As a result he finished fifth among Chase drivers in this round of the ‘playoffs’ which means he will not have a shot at his fifth title in Homestead next week.
The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune
A driver who seems to routinely be plagued by foul fortune, Denny Hamlin was bathed in fine fortune this weekend. Hamlin had a tire go flat thanks to a broken valve stem, ended up a lap down but fought hard and received a Lucky Dog. He then put on two tires a little later in the race before the longest green flag run of the event. He went a lap down again and then lost the Lucky Dog spot to Jamie McMurray and then Joey Logano. Three caution flags flew in a 33 lap stint which put Hamlin back on the lead lap a second time. He took full advantage of that positioning to come home in fifth place.
Greg Biffle started the race in 28th position and didn’t move forward very quickly. He did claw his way to the top 15 near the midway point but slid back to the 20s with less than 30 laps to go. Pit strategy and hard racing put Biffle in a solid position that he capitalized on to come home in ninth spot.
Marcos Ambrose crossed the finish line one spot behind Greg Biffle. Similarly he started deep in the field and didn’t get very close to the front until the end of the event. Ambrose had a heated battle with Kyle Larson in the closing laps and prevailed, eventually coming home in 10th. As the checkered flag is about to wave on Ambrose’s Cup career, it is nice to see that he’s still competitive to the very end.
Kevin Harvick’s win was his 27th of his Cup career in his 501st series start. Matt Kenseth and Richard Petty are still the only two drivers who won their 500th start.
Harvick is now alone in 25th on the all-time wins list. He is sixth among active drivers on the list.
This win is Harvick’s fourth of the 2014 season. He is tied for third on the win list for 2014 with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Harvick’s triumph is his sixth career win at Phoenix International Raceway by far his best track. Charlotte is second on Harvick’s career win list with three race victories.
Jeff Gordon’s runner-up run was his 12th top 2 finish of the season.
Gordon’s second place run was his fourth top 2 finish in his career at PIR.
Matt Kenseth’s third place outcome was his sixth podium run of the season.
Kenseth has four career top 3 runs at Phoenix.
Kyle Larson finished in 13th to claim the Rookie of the Race honors.
Using the current points but no Chase, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano would be the only two drivers with a shot at the title with Gordon 29 points ahead of Logano headed into Homestead.
What’s the Points
Now that the checkered flag has flown at Phoenix, the points truly don’t matter when it comes to determining the series champion. There are no bonus points at Homestead. The first of the four drivers eligible to cross the finish line when the checkered flag is in the air will be the 2014 series champion. The hype machine will be in full swing this week as the season approaches its final weekend. With none of the four drivers previously winning a Cup title we are guaranteed that the ’14 champ will be a first timer.
- Denny Hamlin 5000
- Joey Logano 5000
- Ryan Newman 5000
- Kevin Harvick 5000
- Brad Keselowski 2320
- Jeff Gordon 2312
- Matt Kenseth 2296
- Kyle Busch 2280
- Carl Edwards 2278
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 2271
- AJ Allmendinger 2256
- Greg Biffle 2244
- Jimmie Johnson 2239
- Kurt Busch 2229
- Kasey Kahne 2202
- Aric Almirola 2170
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) – The ace at Phoenix offered as much point drama as anyone could ask for if that is what they are looking for. At some point in the race nearly every driver still among the eight eligible for the final four was mathematically in and out. Unfortunately the majority of race fans watch races to see actual competition and hard racing. Aside from the manufactured beating and banging associated with the double file restarts on the record 12 cautions during the race the majority of the event was more like a mile and a half snoozer. As a result it gets three room temperature Budweisers in honor of Kevin Harvick’s throwback paint scheme.
It all comes down to this. 400 miles at Homestead-Miami Speedway to settle the 2014 championship. Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. It will be the final race for ESPN for the foreseeable future. It can also be heard on MRN and NASCAR Sirius XM Satellite radio channel 90.
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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