A victory at Phoenix—and a dominating one at that—was exactly what Kevin Harvick needed to keep his hopes for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship alive.
But a second-place finish in Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 did Jeff Gordon no good, thanks to a final-lap banzai run by Ryan Newman, who passed rookie Kyle Parson for the 11th position on the final lap to eliminate Gordon from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by a single point.
Polesitter Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, who shared the Chase lead entering the Eliminator Round’s final event, both recovered from bizarre errors on pit road to join Harvick and Newman in next Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The driver who finishes highest among those four will claim the 2015 series title.
“Wow, I guess that’s what it feels like to hit a walk-off in extra innings there,” said Harvick, who completed the season sweep at Phoenix with his fourth victory in the last five races there. “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. 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. To do that in front of all your almost hometown fans (Harvick is from Bakersfield, Calif.) and all these people who have been rooting for me since the mid-‘90s is pretty unbelievable. Man, I think this says a lot about our team. I think we have been through a lot this year. They put our backs against the wall. We put it in Victory Lane and get to go on.”
As such, Harvick goes from desperation mode—needing a victory at Phoenix to advance to the season finale—to the role of favorite at Homestead, given the speed his cars have shown all season long.
Asked to handicap the championship race, Gordon was emphatic, and for good reason. He chased Harvick to the finish line and fell 1.636 seconds behind in the final 12-lap run.
“I like Harvick,” Gordon asserted. “Yeah, I think Harvick looks really good… the guy has led the most laps all year long, guys. It’s not me that’s saying this. I do think that Denny won that race (at Homestead) last year, so he can be really, really strong there.
“But Kevin looked good there in the test (in late October), and, man, they’ve just been so strong lately, and it seems like they’ve gotten some of the bugs worked out in their team that they had early in the year. And I think if they do that next week, they’re going to be really tough to beat like they were today.”
In winning for the fourth time this season and the 27th time in his career, Harvick led 264 of 312 laps, 40 more circuits than he led in a dominating win at the one-mile track on Mar. 2.
In addition to Gordon, third-place finisher Matt Kenseth, fourth-place Brad Keselowski and 15th place Carl Edwards failed to advance to the final race with their title eligibility intact. Kenseth fell three points short of Newman in the final tally.
Conversely, Hamlin and Logano overcame potential Chase-ending mistakes to claim their positions in the final race.
On Hamlin’s first pit stop, under caution on Lap 30, the rear tire changer’s air gun inadvertently knocked the valve stem off and flattened the tire. Hamlin returned to the pits and restarted 36th. Twice during the race, he fell a lap down to Harvick but took advantage of two free passes as the highest-scored lapped car and ultimately finished fifth.
The crew gained three positions for Hamlin on his final stop, from 11th to eighth, even though five drivers stayed out on older tires. Hamlin parlayed his improved track position into a top five.
Logano was penalized when he dragged a fuel can that had not disengaged from the coupler out of his pit stall under caution on Lap 123. Like Hamlin, Logano lost a lap to Harvick but took advantage of a “lucky dog” before a restart on Lap 206 and rallied to finish sixth.
Those comebacks gave Logano and Hamlin more than enough margin to qualify for the championship race.
“I think Denny and I had the exact same day out there,” Logano observed. “Both of us had a little issue on pit road and got stuck back there, went down a lap, (and) we recovered and we finished fifth and sixth. We really kept our cool throughout the day. I think that was important. We were able to get the lucky dog, then had some damage avoiding the 18’s (Kyle Busch’s) crash, was able to fix that and recover again to get ourselves back in.
“Definitely a drama filled day for sure, not what we wanted. We were hoping for just a normal, uneventful day to just get a nice top 10 is all we needed—which we ended up doing, but it was definitely eventful along the way. Proud of my team, proud of everyone to get us to this point, and we’ll have some fun next week, go for a championship.”
Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is guaranteed at Homestead: with Harvick, Hamlin, Logano and Newman competing for the title, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will have a first-time champion.