AVONDALE, Ariz. (The Sports Xchange/CBS4) – The four-driver field for the Championship Round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup was settled in a rain-shortened race Sunday, and Denver’s small Furniture Row Racing and driver Martin Truex Jr. made the cut.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 event at Phoenix International Raceway when the red flag was displayed early because of inclement weather.
The race was called official after the completion of 219 of the scheduled 312 laps, giving Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex Jr. the last three spots in the championship chase.
Jeff Gordon, who previously qualified, will join that trio in competing for the Sprint Cup during the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.
Harvick finished second Sunday. Joey Logano came in third, Kyle Busch fourth, Jimmie Johnson fifth and Gordon sixth. Truex came in 14th.
“I’m excited about our chances and our opportunity,” Gordon said. “Our team is fired up and working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won at Martinsville, and we know we’ve got some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I love that race track.”
Earnhardt, meanwhile, enjoyed his result even if it didn’t mean a spot in the Championship Round.
“It’s a rain-shortened win, but my guys are very proud of it because of how the car ran all weekend, and we put ourselves in this position,” he said. “A lot of guys would love to see this race continue and have an opportunity to race to the Chase. If I had 4 or 6 inches at Talladega, we would be going there to Homestead to race for a championship, too. It works out for some, and some it doesn’t.
“We will take this win. It has been a long year, and we put a lot of effort into it, and we are starting to see some things turn around and work for us like we want. We were fast all weekend, so real proud of this.”
Before the finish, the race was already under a caution that came out on lap 195 for a wreck involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase. The start of the race was delayed over 6 1/2 hours for rain earlier in the day.
The yellow flag for Stenhouse and Gase was the second caution of the race, and it came after about half of the race field pitted under green, as a cycle of green-flag pit stops began just a lap earlier.
Earnhardt, Harvick, Logano and Kyle Busch pitted under green just before the yellow flag but remained on the lead lap and moved into the top four positions when others pitted under yellow. Johnson was the first driver off pit road during the caution.
“We had an idea that the rain was in the area, but all the circumstances that played out at the end of the race are just kind of luck, I think,” Earnhardt said. “I want to give Greg (Ives, crew chief) a lot of credit and the guys. They gave us a good enough car to come here and qualify well.
“I think the reason why we won this race is because of the way we qualified to give ourselves a position to be up front all night. When something this quirky happens, we were able to capitalize.”
Harvick dominated the race after getting off pit road first courtesy of a two-tire stop during a competition caution on lap 40. He led most of the remaining laps.
“We made great adjustments overnight and got that little bit of balance that we were looking for from practice, and just the way that the caution fell, I didn’t get all my distance back on the race track under green and Dale was able to beat us out,” Harvick said. “But, hey, you lose some and you win some like that. And sometimes you’re on the right side of it and sometimes you’re on the wrong side of it.
“Today, we were on the wrong side of it, but in the big picture, we’re racing for a championship next week, so I’m just really proud of everybody on our team.”
Earnhardt and Logano, like Harvick, were among five drivers who took two tires during the yellow-flag pit stops. As Harvick pulled away when the race returned to green, Earnhardt and Logano traded the second position back and forth. By the time the race field began cycling through green-flag pit stops on lap 118, Harvick had a cushion of more than five seconds over Logano.
When the cycle of stops completed, Harvick was back up front with Logano in second. Logano made his green-flag stop two laps before Harvick, and after the cycle was completed, his deficit to Harvick was down to two seconds.
Johnson started the race on the pole, with Kurt Busch alongside on the front row following the rain delay. Kurt Busch looked to take the lead in turn three on the first lap, but NASCAR penalized him for jumping the start and handed the lead back over to Johnson. As a result of the penalty, Kurt Busch was not credited for the laps he ran up front before serving his pass-through penalty.
Johnson continued to lead until the lap-40 yellow flag, but he was forced to join Kurt Busch in the back for the restart after serving a pit-road speeding penalty. By the halfway point of the race, though, both Johnson and Kurt Busch were inside the top 10 of the running order.
The race, originally scheduled for a 12:45 p.m. start, was delayed by rain throughout the afternoon and evening.
NASCAR and track personnel got the racing surface nearly dry multiple times between showers. After hours of battling moisture from the sky, water that collected in the track’s SAFER barrier system began seeping onto the race track.
Of the 43 drivers who started the race, seven were vying for three remaining slots in the one-race Championship Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They were Busch, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Logano, Truex, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.
Phoenix International Raceway is temporarily renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway to honor the retiring driver. Gordon clinched his advancement to the final round of the Chase with his win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Nov. 1.
NOTES: Kevin Harvick came into Sunday’s race as the winner of the four most recent races at Phoenix International Raceway. … Joey Logano’s only shot at advancement in the Chase for the Sprint Cup was to win at Phoenix. … Erik Jones substituted for the suspended Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the second week, and he came in 19th. It also was Jones’ second consecutive week of NASCAR triple duty. Kenseth will return next week. … Kyle Busch led all but 10 laps en route to the win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Phoenix on Saturday. Brad Keselowski and Jones finished second and third, respectively.