Who’s in the headline – Amazingly it is Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week, thanks to a fortunate pit stall location and an unimpressive bit of driving by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase. The latter two drivers got together during a round of green flag stops and Earnhardt was pitted just before the start/finish line as the caution flew. As Earnhardt pulled out of his stall he crossed the line before Kevin Harvick did. The teams who had not pitted before the caution came out did so once the pits opened. The result was Earnhardt was in the first position ahead of Harvick with Joey Logano, needing a win to advance, in third and ultimately locked out of the final round.
What happened – The green flag flew and Kurt Busch crossed the line before polesitter Jimmie Johnson. Busch had to serve a pass through penalty as a result and was not credited with leading the laps he did to start the race. Johnson led the race until the competition caution on lap 42 and Harvick took over the lead coming out of those pit stops. Green-flag stops allowed Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon to lead laps. In the end, after waiting for six hours to start the race, NASCAR didn’t wait 10 minutes from the red flag until it called the race at 11:42 p.m. ET.)
Why you should care – The premature end to the race prevented Logano and Kurt Busch from having a shot at the win, which would have propelled them to the final round of the Chase. It also kept Johnson from making it two in a row due to a speeding penalty during the competition caution. The four drivers with a shot at the title are Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
What your friends are talking about – NASCAR talks a great game about only starting races if they have a window to get the full length of the race in. When the race started in Phoenix there was rain all around the track, as there had been all day, and a large cell was headed toward the track from the west. They threw the rag after six hours of waiting for the track to try and then, when rain hit again, they called it in under 15 minutes. With so much on the line, from the prospect of a title for eight teams, the associated millions of dollars, not to mention an all-but-guaranteed spot in the Hall of Fame, it is an embarrassment that they didn’t wait at least an hour to try and restart the race.
For years we’ve been force-fed a company line that winning is most important in this Chase format. The last two years it was supposed to be even more important with the elimination aspect of the current format. If you look at what is left of the Chase field, the three drivers with the most wins on the circuit this season are out of contention for the title. Logano and his six wins along with Matt Kenseth and Johnson, with five wins each, are all on the outside looking in. You can’t manufacture excitement, and, try as they might, the sanctioning body has figured out a way to emphasize winning so much that they’ve locked out the three drivers who scored the most wins in 2015.
Harvick made it through Phoenix without feeling any retribution from his actions at Talladega that eliminated three drivers from the title and tore up a dozen cars. That maneuver is what kept Earnhardt out of the final round since he would have advanced to Homestead-Miami Speedway due to his win in Phoenix. Had NASCAR let the cars race another couple hundred feet at Talladega, Earnhardt would have scored the win and be tied with Kyle Busch for most wins in the final round. The people who had a beef with Harvick had a shot to police the sport on their own in the desert and they did not. As a result, Harvick could very well be your back-to-back champion due to his strong average finish at Homestead-Miami.
Speaking of narratives that are stuffed down the fans’ collective throats over and over, the Air Titans were supposed to make track drying far more efficient than it had been for years. Yet somehow, in the middle of a desert, they were unable to dry the track through four hours of on and off showers. For years people have bought into the fallacy that oval races cannot be contested under wet conditions. While a driving rainstorm would be a bad idea, there is no reason that an intermediate moisture tire couldn’t be used. It would be up to the teams to manage tires just as they should in a normal, dry condition race. A six-hour rain delay is simply unreasonable for fans and won’t work with the ADD fan base to which the sport is now trying to cater.
In the middle of the season the race at Daytona went green at 11:42 p.m. The race in Phoenix was called at 11:42 p.m. While some might like to say every race is of equal importance in this sport, that simply isn’t true. The final race in elimination rounds in the Chase is one of the most important. The final race of the final round before Homestead-Miami is most likely THE most important. It is completely unacceptable to call that race early. It is incredibly rare for a World Series game to be called early. NFL playoff games are not called early. If NASCAR wants to be like those sports, and they continue to try, then they cannot pull a stunt like they did at Phoenix International Raceway.
As mentioned above, the race started off in rocky style for Kurt Busch. After waiting for six hours to get things going, Busch beat Johnson to the line by about six inches to start the race. NASCAR penalized him with a pass through penalty because they had specifically discussed it in the drivers’ meeting. With all of the talk that has gone on this season about restarts, it is time to have the green flag start racing and eliminate all of this other silliness.
Sam Hornish Jr. is out of the No. 9 when the sun sets on the 2015 season. The open-wheel star has never realized the full potential that many people felt he possesses in a stock car. Whether he’ll end up in another ride for next season or move to a different motorsports discipline is yet to be seen. Which driver will be in the No. 9 next year is yet to be announced. Rumors are that Ragan is the leading candidate.
Who is mad – The most upset people of anyone on Sunday night were the fans. Whether they are fans of Carl Edwards, Logano or Kurt Busch or just fans of the sport in general, they came out of that race feeling cheated. The fact that three-race sprints decide who advances rounds, and this is the last round that determines the final four drivers with a shot for the title, it should have been a high priority that it was completed and done properly. Instead they drug the day out for six hours trying to get the race started, dropped the flag with a window that most likely was not going to allow it to go the distance, and then surrendered far too quickly once the red flew for the inevitable rain. The rain stopped shortly after the event was called and, with the Air Titans and jet dryers on site, they should have tried for at least an hour to make the track raceworthy again. The fans continue to receive the short end of decisions in this sport and this one was a horrible one.
Logano had some work to do if he was going to beat Harvick on Sunday, but his car was one of the closest ones to the No. 4. He at least deserved a shot to see if he could pull it off over the full duration of the event. Logano was poised to restart in the second row, directly behind Harvick and Earnhardt. He would have put on a show for sure and just might have been able to make it to the final round. Unfortunately he’ll never know because the race was called too early.
Kurt Busch has more than one reason to be less than pleased flying back to Charlotte. The penalty at the start of the event, which forced him to race through the field to try and win was not enforced at this exact same track at the first race this season. Busch had clawed his way back to seventh and was running lap times as fast as anyone on the racetrack when the caution flew the second time. Busch had to win to advance but he was one of the three or four cars that was capable of doing it on Sunday. Unfortunately he didn’t get the chance.
Who is happy – Truex is as happy as anyone in the sport to be heading to Miami with a chance to win the title. Truex was railroaded out of a job at Michael Waltrip Racing through no fault of his own a couple of years ago. He then had a terrible personal year last year with his longtime girlfriend diagnosed with cancer. He now gets the chance to go run for a title in south Florida with the second-best average finish among the four drivers left in contention.
Kyle Busch has struggled whenever he’s had a shot in the Chase. His one victory during a Chase race came in the year he wasn’t eligible for the title. Coming off of the injuries he received in Daytona to start the season, he wondered if he would race again this year if ever. NASCAR gave him the waiver assuming he could make it to mathematical eligibility. He finished 36th at Dover in his second race back and 43rd at Michigan in his fourth race back. People who hadn’t already written him off had thrown in the towel on him at that point. Busch rebounded with four wins in the next five races, worked his way into the top 30 and is now on his way to Homestead-Miami by virtue of his strong run throughout the Chase this season.
Aric Almirola will have a new teammate next year but as 2015 winds down, he notched another top-10 finish at Phoenix. Almirola has six top 10s this season but Sunday’s was his fourth during the 10 Chase races this year. Throw in his top five at Richmond to close out the regular season, and Almirola has five top 10s in the last 10 races. Having competed in the Chase last season, the 31-year-old driver looks to be raising his game to the level where he will be in contention to run for the title at the end of 2016 if he performs as he feels he can.
When the checkered flag flew
Earnhardt Jr. notched his 26th career victory in his 576th career start Sunday night at Phoenix International Raceway.
This was Earnhardt’s third career win at Phoenix, which ties it with Richmond for the non-plate tracks where he has won the most races throughout his career.
Earnhardt has won three races in 2015.
Harvick finished in the second position for 12th time in 2015. Add in the three victories and Harvick has finished in the top two 15 times this year. 12 times crossing the finish line second is a modern-era record.
Harvick’s streak of four-straight wins came to an end with his runner-up run.
Harvick has seven career wins at PIR and two second-place runs for a total of nine top twos.
Logano rounded out the podium at Phoenix as he missed transferring to the next round of the Chase.
Logano has 12 top-three runs in 2015.
This was Logano’s second career third-place finish at Phoenix, his best finish ever in the desert.
Logano has finished in the top three 33 times in his career. That ties him with Paul Goldsmith for 60th on the all-time list.
Matt DiBenedetto finished the race in 28th to claim the Rookie of the Race honors.
All of the preliminary activities are in the books. The final four have been identified and the series is set to head to Florida to determine the 2015 series champion. Gordon was the only driver in the third round, who was eligible to advance, that actually won a race. As a result the other three positions in the final race were awarded on points. The four drivers with a chance to sit at the head table in Las Vegas are:
- 1. Kyle Busch
- 1. Jeff Gordon
- 1. Kevin Harvick
- 1. Martin Truex Jr.
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $11,552,149 in 35 races, while the last-place finisher has taken home $2,683,116.
In the Xfinity Series it has been $2,284,114 for the winners and $417,146 for last place in 32 races.
After 22 Truck races the winner has $1,082,252 in his coffers and the last loser has banked $203,813.
What is in the cooler
There are a handful of things in this sport that are akin to kissing your sister. Starting the race under green and yellow together. Debris cautions for unseen debris within 20 laps of the finish, to name a couple. No development feels worse than a rain-shortened race. Add in the scenario where it is the race that determines the four drivers who will run for the championship and it leaves a horrendous taste in your mouth. The most popular driver in the sport winning only manages to bring it from a one-beer race to a two. The sport will have to put on a whale of a show in Florida next weekend to rinse this taste from the fans’ tongues. For this weekend it as only worth two Midnight Mayhems from Freak ‘N’ Brewing Company in Peoria, Ariz.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The final weekend of racing in the NASCAR national touring series is upon us. The culmination of the championship weekend is Sunday, Nov. 22, with the green flag flying on Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3 p.m. The race can be seen on NBC. If you want to hear the race, or can’t be in front of a TV, it can be heard on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR 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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