Dale Earnhardt Jr made it two wins in a row for non-Chase drivers Sunday night, captured the rain-plagued Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. This win was the 26th of Earnhardt’s Sprint Cup Series career and his third of the season.
The start of the race was delayed six and a half hours by heavy rain, and ended 93 laps short of its scheduled distance when another downpour soaked the track on Lap 219. Earnhardt had come to pit road just a lap before Joey Gase and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed in Turn Three, bringing out the race’s second caution flag on Lap 196. While on pit road, Earnhardt crossed the start/finish scoring line before leader Kevin Harvick. When the other lead-lap cars pitted under yellow, Earnhardt inherited the top spot over Harvick and Joey Logano. Before the wreck could be cleared, rain began to fall once again, eventually becoming a deluge that forced an early end to the event.
“We struggled all year in qualifying, and that was really the difference maker for us today,” said Earnhardt afterward. “It gave us this awesome pit stall that was just right next to the start‑finish line, and) when the caution came out, (Harvick and Logano) 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. It's a quirky set of circumstances, but the qualifying effort really is what put us there.
“I know there are some guys in the field who would love to see this get going again,” said Earnhardt. “But if I had four or six inches (more) at Talladega, I’d be going to Homestead racing for a Championship, too.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver predicted more good things for his team this weekend, saying, “If my car drives like it did at Texas, I'm going to win. We should have won Texas. (Homestead) is really similar to Texas, so I feel confident that we can go there and run well.”
|Kurt Busch fell victim to a jumped start...|
Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano were eliminated from the Chase Sunday, leaving defending series champion Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. to race Jeff Gordon for the title in this weekend’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Harvick came to PIR riding a streak of four straight wins – and five of the last six -- at the desert oval. He needed only a solid run to secure a spot in this weekend’s championship race, and he did exactly that; leading a race-high 143 laps before a green-flag pit stop dropped him to third in the running order when the rain began to fall.
“The caution came out at the wrong time, and we didn’t get a chance to race for the win,” said Harvick afterward. “It's kind of bittersweet. The car really performed well today, and we were able to lead a lot of laps. The caution came out at the wrong time, and we didn't get to make up the ground (we lost) on the race track under green. Sometimes you win these things and sometimes you don't, but in the end, the big picture is what it's all about.”
Kyle Busch continued his fairytale run toward a possible first Sprint Cup Series title with a fourth-place finish Sunday. After missing the first 11 races of the season with a broken right leg and left foot suffered in the XFINITY Series opener at Daytona International Speedway, Busch battled back to win four times and qualify for the Chase.
|...while Kyle will race for the championship|
“When I returned, we did a good job and won four out of five to put ourselves in a position to make the Chase,” said Busch Sunday. “It was tough to be at home, lying in bed and watching other guys race my car. We did what we needed to do tonight, and I look forward to next week. We’re going to make the most of it. We’re playing with house money and we’re rolling to Homestead.”
After entering Sunday’s race with a seven-point lead over Edwards, Truex lost a lap on the same pit sequence that gave Earnhardt the lead. He took a wave-around prior to the restart, then finished 14th -- two spots behind Edwards -- to secure his spot at Homestead.
"I got a little nervous when the caution came out,” said Truex. “But all in all, we did what we had to do. Homestead is a really good race track for me and that’s our kind of race track for this team. With the way our stuff has been running lately, it's been really good. I’m excited about next week and the opportunity to do something special. This is the kind of thing that you dream about since you’re a little kid. Having a shot to win a Sprint Cup Series championship is just awesome and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
A recent feud with Matt Kenseth brought Logano to Phoenix needing nothing less than a win to advance to the championship finale. He took his disappointing, third-place finish with a stiff upper lip, saying, “It’s hard to play the race with rain in the area. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you just hope there’s another shot. You hope there’s a restart, and two of them slip up and you’re able to put it three-wide on the bottom, or do something like that. (We) just didn’t ever have the opportunity there at the end. Our heads are still high. It’s been a great season. I don’t have much bad to say about anything. I just wanted one more shot at it.”
Kurt Busch’s bid for a Championship Round berth was literally doomed from the start Sunday. The Haas Automation Chevrolet driver jumped the initial green flag from the outside pole and was forced to serve a drive-through penalty. His was one of the fastest cars throughout the event, but after beginning the race in a 26-point championship hole, a seventh-place finish Sunday was not enough for him to advance.