Championship Field Set as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins Rainy Phoenix Raceby Kyle Pokrefky November 16, 2015 0 comments
Mother Nature couldn’t stay out of NASCAR’s way once again this season as heavy rains delayed the start of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500k at Phoenix International Raceway and forced an early calling to the event after 219 laps.
While Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were left wondering what could have been after not getting a chance to race to completion and thus ending their title hopes, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. will pack up and head to Homestead-Miami Speedway as title contenders.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also depart from Phoenix happy as he was officially crowned as the winner of the rain-shortened race.
For Earnhardt Jr., Sunday night’s win was the 26th of his career, his third of the season and his third at Phoenix.
The driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet came from a third-place starting position and led twice for 22 laps on Sunday and held on to the lead for the 21 laps and through a lengthy caution on Lap 197 (Earnhardt Jr. took over the lead two laps into the caution) to hold on to the lead.
“You know, we had a really good qualifying effort,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We struggled all year in qualifying, and that was really the difference maker for us today. It gave us this awesome pit stall that was just right next to the start‑finish line. When the caution came out, the 4 and the 22 slowed down like everyone else.
“If the caution doesn’t come out they would have beat us all around the racetrack. But the caution come out so they slowed down and when we come out of our pit stall and cross the finish line and it scored us ahead of them, and then when everyone cycles it put us in the lead.
“So it’s just a quirky set of circumstances, but the qualifying effort really is what put us there, gave us that pit selection and gave us the track position all night…
“So [I’m] real happy. The car has been fast, and if you’re fast ‑ we’ve been fast all year, just haven’t qualified well enough to give ourselves the track position and give us the pit selection that we need and give us the advantage we need like tonight. Real happy that we could put a full week in together.”
Finishing second was Harvick, whose four-race win streak at the track was broken. When talking about his runner-up finish in the final race of the Eliminator Round, the defending Sprint Cup champion labelled the result as ‘bittersweet.’
Last year’s champion was the dominant driver of the race, having led 143 of 219 laps at a track that has provided him with seven of his 31 career race wins.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Harvick said. “The car just really performed well today and we were able to lead a lot of laps and just really proud of the guys for the decisions that they made overnight to get that last little bit out of the car today and how it performed was really good.
“Just caution came out at the wrong time, and we didn’t get to make up the ground on the racetrack under green, where Dale was pitted and the way that they came out of the pits just didn’t time out well. But still proud of our group, and sometimes you win some of those things, sometimes you don’t, but in the end the big picture is what it’s all about.”
As Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick ended their days on a positive note, third-place finisher Logano came up just short of having a shot at redeeming his Chase hopes after two disastrous races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
Even after failing to advance to the Championship Round for a second straight year, Logano is still fully proud of his Team Penske crew for the effort they have put in in 2015.
“You can’t help the weather,” Logano stated. “I guess it wasn’t in the cards tonight, but I’m still super-proud of what this Pennzoil team has done all year. We’ve had super-fast race cars and we really produced on the race track, executed our plan. Once again, this is a high-pressure race for these guys and to see us drive to the front and have good pit stops all night, but it just didn’t work out.
“Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done this year. We’ve still got one more race to win this year. Our heads are still high and it’s been a great season. I don’t have much to say bad about anything.
“I just want another shot at it and when you’re this close to seeing the lead you want just one more restart. I was hoping they got that wreck cleaned up fast enough to just try to get one more shot at it, but congratulations to Junior and his team. It’s cool for them, but I wish I had another restart.”
Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Keselowski and Aric Almirola completed the top-10 of the race standings.
Championship Round driver Truex Jr. finished 14th while now eliminated Chase driver Carl Edwards came home in the 12th position.
Two caution flags flew on Sunday for a total of 29 laps – the first being for a competition caution on Lap 42 and the second for a solo accident by Joey Gase off of Turn 2 on Lap 197.
Eight lead changes amongst seven drivers took place with Johnson, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, David Ragan and Gordon each taking turns leading the race alongside of Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick.
Top-10 Finishers of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500k
- 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Chevrolet – Hendrick Motorsports
- 4 – Kevin Harvick* – Chevrolet – Stewart-Haas Racing
- 22 – Joey Logano* – Ford – Team Penske
- 18 – Kyle Busch* – Toyota – Joe Gibbs Racing
- 48 – Jimmie Johnson – Chevrolet – Hendrick Motorsports
- 24 – Jeff Gordon* – Chevrolet – Hendrick Motorsports
- 41 – Kurt Busch* – Chevrolet – Stewart-Haas Racing
- 11 – Denny Hamlin – Toyota – Joe Gibbs Racing
- 2 – Brad Keselowski* – Ford – Team Penske
- 43 – Aric Almirola – Ford – Richard Petty Motorsports
Eliminator Round Standings after Race 3 of 3
- 4 – Kevin Harvick – Stewart-Haas Racing – 4123 | LOCKED IN ON POINTS
- 24 – Jeff Gordon – Hendrick Motorsports – 4121 | LOCKED IN BY ONE WIN
- 18 – Kyle Busch – Joe Gibbs Racing – 4121 | LOCKED IN ON POINTS
- 78 – Martin Truex Jr. – Furniture Row Racing – 4106 | LOCKED IN ON POINTS
- 19 – Carl Edwards – Joe Gibbs Racing – 4101 | -22
- 2 – Brad Keselowski – Team Penske – 4093 | -30
- 41 – Kurt Busch – Stewart-Haas Racing – 4085 | -38
- 22 – Joey Logano – Team Penske – 4054 | -69
* = Chase driver.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images