The level of intensity at Phoenix International Raceway was higher than the clouds. Coming down to the final lap, the four drivers that will be fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway now know that they are safe.

In dominating fashion, Kevin Harvick locked himself into the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday afternoon during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Leading 264 of 312 laps at Phoenix, Harvick separated himself from the field to take his third-straight win at the 1-mile speedway.

“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said following the race. “That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix.  This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”

With the triumph, Stewart-Haas Racing now has a shot to win their second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick now has four victories through the 2014 season and had he not won at Phoenix – likely would not have advanced to the final round of the Chase.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were able to advance to the final round of the Chase. Hamlin had a flat tire during a caution period early in the race. Subsequently, the No. 11 car went a lap down during that green-flag run. However, he rallied back on the lead lap, albeit he proceeded to get lapped once again just after the halfway mark. But with approximately 100 laps remaining in the race, the soon to be 34-year-old received the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Hamlin drove his Toyota into the top-five late in the race and solidified his spot in the championship round.

For Logano, he had a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit stop after winning the race off of pit road during the second caution of the day. Like Hamlin, the No. 22 Ford was lapped by Harvick, yet he got the lucky dog to get his lap back. He finished sixth on Sunday at Phoenix, which helped ease his way into the final four as he had a nine-point cushion over Jeff Gordon, who narrowly missed the cutoff.

"When the 4 car laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," said Logano following his comeback on Sunday. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog or will you get the lucky dog.  When you go down a lap it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder.  We missed the lucky dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble.  We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely.” 

Then, there is Newman. For a moment, he seemed to be like the Newman from Seinfeld. After struggling through the first 100 laps, the No. 31 team entered the top-10. However, he fell outside of the top-15 late in the going and opted to use strategy to get up front. On the final restart of the day, Newman’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in fifth-place. But on old tires – multiple cars roared right past him. On the final lap, he was set to be just one position out of the Chase in a tie with Gordon. Gordon would have won the tie-breaker since he had a better top finish in the Eliminator Round. Yet with a bold move in Turn 3, Newman drove it in hard and got into the side of rookie Kyle Larson – putting him in the wall and giving Childress a shot at winning his first Cup Series championship since 1994.

"That was about as clean as I could race," said Newman. "I wasn't proud of it."

Gordon was notably disappointed after finishing second at Phoenix. Had he not been involved in an on-track incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas, the four-time champion likely would have advanced to Homestead. Matt Kenseth also fell short on Sunday. After finishing third, he was just three points behind Newman for third in points. Keselowski finished fourth, and came up eight points behind Newman with Carl Edwards finishing 15th – 15 points behind the No. 31 team.

“It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right,” said Gordon. “We put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough. Some things are out of our control, and I felt like we did a great job putting all the effort into the things that we could control.”

The race had a record 12 cautions on the day – surpassing the previous track record of 11. With eight lead changes during Sunday’s 312-mile spectacle, it was the fewest amount of passes for the lead at the track since 1998.

Going into Homestead, there will be a first-time Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the first time someone will take home their first title since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson captured his first of six crowns. 

Joseph Wolkin can be found on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.

The transition to Richard Childress Racing has been smooth for Ryan Newman. The latest driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet is consistently one of the best cars at any given NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this year.

However, as the Chase for the Sprint Cup is right around the corner, Newman hasn’t scored a win this year. Although he has shown he has cars capable of winning at some of the sport’s largest tracks, ‘rocket Ryan’ has been running around the top 10 on a weekly basis.

“We have been fairly consistent,” Newman said on Friday at Richmond. “Your radar or somebody else’s might be different. The guys have been doing a really good job of providing the good cars that are holding together, and that keeps us in that position. We’ve had issues like every other team, whether it’s a tire problem or a pit stop of something like that. But we’ve kept ourselves in contention to be ninth in points right now and have a shot at being in the Chase.”

Through his first 25 events with RCR, the 36-year-old has earned a pair of top fives with nine top 10s. Moreover, he sits ninth in the championship standings without a win, and has been a key leader for the organization.

With Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon looking for help at tracks he has never seen before, Newman is the veteran of the team now. He is the one that everyone is going to. Whether it is the organization’s Nationwide Series drivers, Dillon or their teammate Paul Menard – everyone has looked up to Newman as a leader. It is a role that he couldn’t have at Team Penske or at Stewart Haas Racing.

Now, thanks to an opportunity from Caterpillar and RCR, Newman might be set to win his first championship in NASCAR competition.

“After 25 races, I think you’re going to see typical Richmond racing. I don’t necessarily think that their Chase format is going to change the outcome of what happens in the last five laps or what happens in the last five minutes before the checkered flag. I think that’s typical Richmond,” he said. “It’s a little bit different situation this year because you’ve got however many guys that have won a race that are locked in and they might be experimenting or experiencing different things versus the other guys who haven’t won and have a shot at winning the race and racing their way in.”

The Chase kicks off next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, and Newman is set to do well. However, without that elusive victory, his team has shown signs of weakness. But after Kevin Harvick ended 2013 on a high note with RCR, Newman might just do the same this year. 

After 19 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, we have gotten past the half-way mark in this exciting 2014 season. Thus far, there have been 11 different winners.

Yeah. 11. How crazy is that?

Well, now we have officially entered the latter half of a season that will entail a new championship format. No one really knows what to expect, yet it will truly be as exciting as possible. We have seen some crazy races this year, and each one has provided controversy in some way, shape or form. With that being said, here are our mid-season report card grades:

Hendrick Motorsports: A/A- The team has been exceptional this season with a pair of wins by Dale Earnhardt Jr., three by Jimmie Johnson and one with Jeff Gordon. However, Kasey Kahne has had his fair share of struggles, which is why they are on the border of receiving an A.

Joe Gibbs Racing: B+/B Gibbs does have a pair of victories in 2014, but they don’t seem to be on track to have the success that they had last year. Although Kyle Busch is eighth in points, he has just eight top-10s. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin has seven. Kenseth is still the highest-ranked driver in the top Toyota organization after finishing second to Johnson in 2013, but qualifying has become a problem for the entire team and has truly put them behind come race day. However, they always rebound rather nicely.

Team Penske: A Penske has rebounded nicely after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Brad Keselowski last season. Winning two of the past three races, the team’s stock has sky rocketed. Keselowski currently sits third in points, but more importantly – he has led more laps half-way through 2014 than he has in any one season throughout his career (previous high was 735 in 2012). Joey Logano has also been hot this year as he is inside of the top-10 in points with a pair of victories. Like Keselowski, Logano has already lead more laps this year than any other season in his young career.

Roush Fenway Racing: C+ Besides a pair of victories from Carl Edwards, not much has gone right for this team. It is well known by now that they just haven’t adjusted to the new rules package very well, but they are slowly moving into the right direction. The intermediate tracks have plagued all three of their drivers this year, and the race at Michigan was probably the worst you will ever see out of this organization. As time moves forward, judgment day is coming on whether or not Edwards will stay at RFR. Once that is out of the clear, maybe, just maybe – the other two drivers in the camp will have more of a focus on contending for wins than ever before.

Richard Petty Motorsports: C+ RPM has had a roller coaster season. Rumors have swirled around the garage on whether or not Marcos Ambrose will return to the team next year. However, he might not considering he has struggled mightily this year. He has just four top-10s this year and sits 20th in points with an average finish worse than 18th. Meanwhile, with Aric Almirola’s Daytona win, the team does have some positives. Almirola has run strong on the intermediate tracks this year, and could be a contender for a top-10 spot in points.

Richard Childress Racing: B RCR has run well this year, but not well enough. They have been a model for consistency as they are seldom outside of the top-15. Ryan Newman has begun to run better with RCR, but hasn’t been in contention for race wins. Paul Menard has been the organization’s best driver with nine top-10s already this season, and is currently in position to make the Chase as he is 11th in points. Austin Dillon has had an up and down year, but he is still developing at NASCAR’s top level. This team has a great deal of potential after having a quiet, yet steady first half to the year.

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates: B- Ganassi’s team has made incredibly large strides this year. The addition of Keith Rodden as Jamie McMurray’s crew chief was exactly what this Chevrolet team needed. McMurray is 21st in points, but his results don’t show how strong he has been in 2014. When he hasn’t been involved in an accident or had mechanical issues, there has not been a single race where the No. 1 car has finished worse than 17th.  Kyle Larson is on pace to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for this team, but he will need to stay at his current pace after a third-place finish at Loudon. He showed weaknesses over the past few weeks, and he can’t have that as he sits 14th in points, right near Dillon.

Stewart Haas Racing: B+/B If this team wouldn’t have such bad luck, they would easily have an A. Kevin Harvick has been one of, if not the quickest car on a weekly basis. Although he has the speed to contend for wins, Harvick’s results don’t show that, along with his teammates. Kurt Busch currently sits 25th in points with a win. Fortunately for him, he hasn’t finished worse than 18th since Dover – enabling him to slowly work his way back up in points after struggling in his first two-three months with the team. Tony Stewart has been a model of inconsistency. He is 19th in points, but has shown moments of brilliance such as at Pocono in June. The entire team needs to become more consistent, and they have the pieces to do so.

Michael Waltrip Racing: B- MWR is lacking speed this season. Brian Vickers has adjusted nicely as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota, but the team just doesn’t have the speed to contend for wins. Vickers and Clint Bowyer have each run inside of the top-15 on a weekly basis, and they have more than five top-10s each, yet they just haven’t been able to seal the deal. The team isn’t horrific by any means necessary. However, after shrinking down from three to two full-time cars this year, MWR hasn’t done as well as they believed. If they can turn the corner just a drop, both of their vehicles should make the Chase.

Furniture Row Racing: C Martin Truex Jr. has struggled in his first year with this team. They have had some really strong runs, and they are slowly leaning in the right direction. The biggest problem for the No. 78 team has been sealing the deal. Once they can do that, they will have more than just three top-10s in 19 races.

JTG Daugherty Racing: C+ Since the team has an alliance with RCR, their expectations have been raised. A.J. Allmendinger has done well for this team. However, they were on an eight race drought in which they couldn’t finish in side of the top-20. Sitting 25th in points with Ku. Busch, Allmendinger has some work to do. With Watkins Glen coming up, that could be the No. 47 team’s only shot to make the Chase.  

HScott Motorsports: C-/D+ Since Harry Scott Jr. bought this team, there have been some growing pains. The short tracks have always been Justin Allgaier’s strong suit, but this year – that is about their only chance to run inside of the top-10. His best track in the Nationwide Series was Chicagoland, and he might have a top-10 finish there if the team can stay on the lead lap – something they have done just five times this season.

Front Row Motorsports: C- As expected, this team has struggled a lot with the new rules package. However, the pole at Daytona for David Gilliland marked the first in the team’s history – showing signs that they aren’t too far behind on the plate tracks. Moreover, the company just needs to finish races considering both drivers are outside of the top-30 in points.

Germain Racing: C Casey Mears has done a good job growing with this team. When they don’t have trouble, the No. 13 car is nearly always inside of the top-25. They are exactly where they were at this point last year, but they have more promise with the RCR alliance just like JTG.

Tommy Baldwin Racing: C- TBR has struggled this year. Reed Sorenson is running his first full season in the Cup Series since 2009, and he is 35th in points. He’s been plagued by mechanical issues all year, and when he hasn’t – the No. 36 car is running outside of the top-30. Meanwhile, Michael Annett is 30th in points. Annett has potential to run inside of the top-25 on a weekly basis, and he might be able to do just that in the second half of the year. However, with a few top-20 finishes, Annett is the only thing that has saved this team from getting a grade in the D range.

Phil Parsons Racing: C/C- Even though the team missed Phoenix, they have done a lot better than anyone would have thought coming into this year. Going from a team that primarily start and parks to running every week is extremely difficult, and they have done a good job at adjusting to the ups and downs of racing all the time. A lot of people took notice to Josh Wise at Bristol when he just refused to go a lap down, and ever since – the team’s popularity has sky rocketed with the Reddit/Dogecoin deal. However, they still need a lot of sponsorship if they want to be better than a team that barely enters the top-30 on a weekly basis.

BK Racing: C-/D+ Cole Whitt has been a leader for this team since he moved over from Swan Racing – finishing inside of the top-30 in nine of the last 11 events. However, Ryan Truex has missed three races, and his best finish this year is 30th. His results have been extremely rough, but there might be light at the end of the tunnel for him as the team looks to regroup with an off weekend. Alex Bowman, another rookie driver for the team, has done slightly better than Truex. He has made every race, and he has been able to run inside of the top-30 every now and then.

Go FAS Racing: D The team has done well at the plate tracks with Terry Labonte. However, everything else has been a struggle. Travis Kvapil is their primary driver, and he has run inside of the top-30 just once in a dozen races this year. They have a few chances to do decent, including Watkins Glen with Boris Said and Talladega in October with Labonte, but everything else depends on sponsorship dollars.

Circle Sport Racing/Hillman Racing: D+ Landon Cassill has done well for the team in the No. 40 car. They have had their struggles, but they have seven finishes inside of the top-30. However, since Kansas – their best finish was 31st at Daytona. The team’s second car, the No. 33, has been switching back and forth with different drivers. It has run a lot worse than the No. 40 car, and it shows. 

It had been since Oct. 11, 2003. It had been 294 starts across NASCAR’s top-three divisions. However, after more than 10 years of heart break, Brendan Gaughan finally got what he deserved – a win.

Gaughan, whose family owns the South Point casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, has been racing in NASCAR’s top-three divisions since he was 21-years-old. Now, 39, Gaughan ended up in the winner’s circle at Road America last weekend.

In an emotional victory, Gaughan expressed his sincere gratitude for those that have stuck by his side since that 2003 win at Texas. Since that time, he has bounced around from team to team. He ran one full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2004, but that didn’t work out. He bounced around the Truck Series, yet after a long journey – Gaughan’s dedication has paid off.

After interviewing him last November, I learned more about Gaughan than I ever thought. Not only did he explain why he still wants to race, but he explained why he wants to end his career with Richard Childress Racing.

“I’m just thankful. I don’t questions why’s or how’s, I just know that I appreciate what Richard has given me. My performance on the track this year (and last year) has at least proven that I can be up front every week and I can go win races in this series and that series (Nationwide). That’s what I’m thankful for. If I can’t win races, I don’t want to be here. We should have won two or three this year, and we will win one. We will go out there and win races next year,” Gaughan told me in our interview.

He had doubts. Why wouldn’t he? When a driver goes through a 10 year win-less streak, they question themselves. However, Gaughan worked through the pain. He did more than beat his competitors on that rainy day at Road America. That day, Gaughan was on top, and all of his doubts went away.

When we spoke on that day in November, Gaughan admitted that he wants to continue to race. He joked about how even though he hadn’t won in 10 years, he was always competing for wins – and that was true. Whether it was in a Nationwide Series car, a truck or in the Cup Series, Gaughan didn’t go a full season without recording a top-five finish. Although he wasn’t always the most competitive driver due to the equipment he was in, Gaughan has always been able to get the most out of his vehicles.

“As soon as it’s proven to me at RCR that I can’t win races, I’m done. Until then, we’re going to keep on driving. It takes a lot to make the series work. I respect the guys that race their heart out and work hard on their race cars day-in and day-out when some days they race and some they park for money,” he said about the possibility of retiring. “I respect them a lot, and it’s hard work doing that. It’s not that they’re any less of a driver or not, they just don’t have the opportunity. I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity, and if I can’t win, I’ll just go ride off in the sunset.”

Joining RCR has been the blessing he has been looking for. Gaughan dedicated the win to his grandfather, Jackie Gaughan, who passed away at the age of 93 in March – adding to the emotions which were spinning through his head. The father of two boys, he even raced part-time in order to have a better opportunity to raise them – similar to what Sam Hornish Jr. did several years ago and is doing now.


“It’s been a long time since I’ve got a win and it’s been documented greatly by many, many places. It’s one of those things where I always said when I got back to victory lane, I understood the difference between when I was 28-years-old and when I’m 38-years-old, but I appreciate it very much, I appreciate all the words and all the support that fans, friends, people you didn’t know were friends, people that hated you,” he said after his win. “All the kind words have been really over whelming, I’ve taken it all in and appreciate every bit of it. I think the best congratulations I got [though] was from my father [Michael] who reminded me that ‘even a blind squirrel finds a nut some days.”

For a driver with his amazing personality, a victory is nothing shy of bitter sweet.

Michael Annett entered this season as an underdog. Annett, 28, is the oldest of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class in 2014, but he also has the most experience in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series.

After starting out his career with Germain Racing, Annett landed at Richard Petty Motorsports after a year with Rusty Wallace Incorporated.  It was at RPM where Annett started to contend for top-10s on a weekly basis, and arguably ran better than the equipment he was in. Last year, however, Annett suffered a major setback as he was severely injured in the season-opener at Daytona – sidelining him for nine races.

Annett came back, but did not run as strong as 2012 – earning just four top-10s in 25 races. Though he never truly contended for wins in the Nationwide Series, Annett showed that it was time to make the jump to the sport’s top-tier division, and that he did.

This year, Annett has been racing with Tommy Baldwin Racing – a team that started in 2009 as a start and park organization that was trying to piece together the right sponsorship package. Now that the team has grown, it was all but perfect timing for Annett.

Through 15 races in 2014, Annett has outrun the drivers he needs to outrun. No, he has not been stunning, but he has surely done better than initially thought. With his sponsor, Pilot/Flying J, following him to the Sprint Cup Series, he has the financial backing that might enable him to join a more established team in the future. But for now – the Iowa native is in the perfect setting where he doesn’t have to worry about having more pressure than needed along with unrealistic expectations.

However, the No. 7 team has begun to gain momentum. Tommy Baldwin Racing expanded their alliance with Richard Childress Racing over the off-season. No, it is not as heavy of an alliance compared to the likes of Furniture Row Racing and Germain Racing, but it is a partnership that has begun to help this underdog team.

Annett has three lead lap finishes this year. Although it doesn’t seem like a lot, all of those have been recorded at larger tracks – something that has been a weak point for this small team in the past. Over the past two weeks, Annett finished 20th and 21st, respectively. There is still room for improvement, but TBR has come a long way in a short time this year after running multiple laps down every single race to start the year. And so far this season, Annett has run slightly better than Dave Blaney did in the same car last year, as well as out running his teammate, Reed Sorenson. 

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