While there are four NASCAR Sprint Cup teams on their way to the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are leaving Phoenix wondering what might have been.
If anybody was in a must-win situation during the Can-Am 500, it was the Stewart-Haas Racing duo of Harvick and Busch.
Harvick, who’d won eight times previously in the ‘Valley of the Sun’, rolled off the grid sixth. Although the driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet ended Sunday afternoon in the fourth-place spot, it was not enough to put him in contention for a second Cup title.
After having to rebound in the Chase rounds of 16 and 12, Harvick’s luck ran out in the ‘Round of Eight’. “We just started way too far off on Friday,” he explained in a Team Chevy post-race transcript. “We never got a handle on the race car. They (his team) made it a ton better in the race and we were in contention there at the end and just came up short.”
Despite adversity throughout the playoff rounds, Harvick still praised his team for their accomplishments. “Just really proud of everybody for the effort that they put in,” he said. “It was a very challenging Chase for us for all the mechanical failures and situations that we had going on. We kept rebounding and winning races and today we were a lap down and came back to have a chance at the end. That says a lot about the character of our race team and we just came up short this year.”
Harvick’s teammate, Busch, also entered the Grand Canyon State below the Chase standings cut line. The only way the driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet and 2004 Cup champion would move into the ‘Championship Four’ would be if he won the penultimate race of the season. He came close but there was no cigar.
“We got up to the front as high as third and sniffed the front to try to win because we had to win to advance,” Busch explained, also in the Team Chevy transcript. “We didn’t get the job done. The long run speed is where our Achilles Heel was these last few Chase races. It’s a little disappointing, maybe we can pinpoint that as our exact problem and figure out how to fix that, but really proud of Tony Gibson (crew chief) and everybody that worked on these cars all year long from Stewart-Haas Racing.”
It was an up-and-down day for Joe Gibbs Racing. While their No. 19 Stanley Toyota driver Carl Edwards, who finished 19th in yesterday’s race, is safely in the top four of the Chase standings after last week’s win in Texas, it was still undecided which of his three teammates would join him.
For the majority of the race, it looked as though Kyle Busch would not get the chance to defend his title from a year ago. After starting the day ranked fourth in the playoff standings, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota fell below the cut line. With less than 40 laps to go, the points-as-they-run standings showed a border war between Busch and Joey Logano, who ended the day in Victory Lane. Which driver would advance?
Kenseth was doing what he needed to do in order to have a shot at the championship next weekend in Homestead. The driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota led a total of 55 laps. Unfortunately, Kenseth ended up snake bit on the overtime restart and as fate would have it, Busch moved back in title contention.
“I don’t really know what happened, I just got through the gears and it was the last restart of the day and I knew they had more than a car length behind me so I just got going and tried to get going early,” Kenseth explained in the Toyota Racing transcript. “The 88 (Alex Bowman) was laying way, way back for that restart, more than a car would so I got going early on purpose and I looked at him at the start-finish line and I thought we were doing okay and I looked back and it looked like he had a little run on me, maybe not and shortly thereafter Chris (Osborne, spotter) cleared me so with the glare I started looking to the corner to approach the corner and I got turned out of the way. He hollered ‘inside’ at the same time I got turned towards the fence so I really don’t know what happened. I was just going off the information I had to try to get the best corner I could and lead more laps.”
Kenseth came away from Arizona disappointed but still proud of his No. 20 Toyota team and their Chase run. “The effort was good and I think we had a solid Chase,” he said. “It’s really disappointing that we don’t get to go to Homestead and race for a championship, but the guys did everything perfect today – it’s the best car I’ve had at Phoenix probably ever. They had good pit stops today and we were competitive. We all as a group did the job that we needed to do to be in position to win that thing. It’s unfortunate the way it worked out.”
The points standings before the race showed Hamlin on the outside looking in. The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota led four laps thanks to his team’s pit stop strategy on lap 258. While the majority of the field pitted at this time, Hamlin stayed out on old tires. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t pan out.
“I knew that when I saw we were the only ones to stay out, I knew we had an uphill climb and I still thought we were okay,” Hamlin explained, also in the Toyota Racing release. “We singled out second behind the 20 (Matt Kenseth) and honestly our lap times cleaned out nice there with about 10 laps. We had that caution and that put me on the bottom on the restart and I just got shuffled from there. I knew it was going to be an uphill climb. We performed well this round, but not great and you need to be great to advance.”
Hamlin and the other three eliminated drivers may be out of the championship picture but they are not out of a chance to score a win in the NASCAR season finale in south Florida and they’ll be racing for a win this weekend. It will be Jimmie Johnson, Edwards, Logano and (Kyle) Busch racing for the ultimate prize, the Sprint Cup championship.