Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was awarded the victory at the Phoenix International Raceway late Sunday night when the rains came and put a halt to the championship parade of fellow competitors. Following a seven hour rain delay prior to the initial green flag, the cutoff race came up 93 laps short of completion.
It was a caution during the midst of green flag pit stops that allowed the No. 88 team to edge in front of Kevin Harvick. Harvick had led 143 out of the 219 laps in the desert, but Earnhardt pitted a few laps later than the No. 4 and with where his pit stall was slotted only had to beat Harvick to the finish line to be in front of him.
After leading 22 laps on the evening, Earnhardt picked up his third career win in the desert and his first since 2004. This is also the No. 88 team’s third victory of 2015, the other two coming at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.
“You like to win them at the checkered flag,” Earnhardt said. “A win is a win, you take it and put it in the record book. My team is very proud of this. They gave me a great car to get me a good qualifying effort. We’ve qualified so poorly all year, and the reason why we won tonight I think is where we qualified this weekend.”
Earnhardt was left questioning what could have been if he had another 100 yards at Talladega where he finished second to Joey Logano, he would be competing for his first career championship at Homestead.
Instead, Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. are the drivers looking to capture the Sprint Cup trophy next weekend. All of them have unique stories in their own right of how they have gotten to this point.
Harvick finished in the runner-up position on Sunday. After having the dominant car, he was unable to get ahead of Earnhardt as there was a lengthy yellow flag prior to the rain down pouring on his chances of getting a fifth-consecutive victory in Phoenix.
However, Harvick is looking to put a second big trophy into his trophy box at Homestead.
“We made great adjustments over night,” Harvick said of his racecar. “We found a little bit of balance that we were looking for in practice. 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. You win some and you lose some like that, but in the big picture you’re racing for a championship next week.”
“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of things in the Chase. We’ve survived and advanced, it hasn’t been 100 percent pretty from one end to the other. When you look at the Chase it’s been championship material and that’s proven by making it to the championship race.”
Gordon will be racing for a championship in his final race behind the wheel of the No. 24. In Phoenix, Gordon finished in the sixth position and led four laps through a round of green flag pit stops. This solid run for Gordon builds him confidence going down to Miami as he looks to leave the sport on top. He has six-consecutive top 10 finishes heading into his final race.
“I’m excited about our chances and the opportunity and our team is fired up, they’ve been working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won Martinsville,” Gordon said. “We know we have some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I couldn’t be more excited or more determined to go down there and do what it’s going to take with this race team.”
Busch was able to advance to the championship race by having more points than his teammate Carl Edwards. The No. 18 finished fourth on the evening and was able to stay out in front of all the trouble and move toward the front near the end of the race.
After having a subpar 19 second pit stop during one of the two green flag pit stops Busch fell down to ninth in the running order. Over the course of the next 80 laps Busch was able to place himself solidly into the top five and when the rain came, he was in front of his nearest competition in the point standings.
“We did what we needed to do tonight,” Busch said of his night and advancing to Homestead. “I think the biggest thing is just being able to go to Homestead, a place where I feel like I’ve run well at in the past and get an opportunity to race for a championship. I think that you try to limit your distractions heading into that race and just try to do the right things in practice, in qualifying and everything . I’m going to have to lean on my teammates at Homestead, they are really good there. We know that we are going to have to win that thing.”
The fourth team heading to Homestead with a chance at a championship is the single car No. 78 team out of Denver, Colorado. Truex has been consistent all season long with 22 top-10 finishes, and has been on point since the Chase began at Chicago.
At Homestead, Truex has run well. More than likely, he will need to win the race to capture his first championship. For a guy that has overcome a ton of adversity in the past year, he is thankful for this opportunity.
“It means everything to us,” Truex said of advancing to Homestead. “What can I say about the whole team and everyone at Furniture Row Racing, everybody back in the shop in Denver? It’s just a dream come true for us. I’m really proud of what we accomplished this year and to be able to put nine really good weeks together, it was just awesome. I got a little nervous when the caution came out on us tonight, but Homestead is a really good track for me and that’s our kind of race track with this team.”
Those were the winners on Sunday. There were many disappointing drivers who either just missed the championship round or unable to finish the remaining 93 laps under the green flag.
Edwards came up five points short of advancing to his best track and competing for a championship. If the race went back green Edwards was in the 12th position with Truex back in traffic and thought he could have made up those five points. Unfortunately, for Edwards it was not to be and will have to wait for next year to try to win the Cup. Edwards thought that he had the car to get up there and gain those points.
Kurt Busch had to overcome adversity from Lap 1 of the race. The No. 41 beat the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson to the green flag and was then penalized for doing so. In a race that was a must-win, Busch came up seven positions short of a victory.
Joey Logano was also in a must-win situation and his night was very steady as he ran second to Harvick for the majority of the longest green flag fun of the season. After finishing multiple laps down in the first two races, the No. 22 team finished third, but was two positions short of his alluded victory. After having six wins in 2015, he will have to wait until 2016 to try and win his first championship.
The last competitor who had a shot at a win-and-in scenario was Brad Keselowski. After leading 312 laps in Texas, but ultimately losing the race with four laps to go, his championship hopes looked to slip from his grasp. Keselowski struggled all weekend in Phoenix and finished with a disappointing ninth.
There is no doubt about it that the anxiety leading up to Homestead will be through the roof. There are many stories that could have a perfect ending depending on the driver who wins the championship in one of the most competitive championship battles in recent memory.