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.
It might feel like 2012 all over again. That doesn’t sound right, does it? How could that be? Time is just an illusion after all.
In a world in which cars are life comes one man who has prospered with a team that people could only dream about being a part of. Driving for Roger Penske, one of the most successful men in all of racing, this man has blossomed into a championship caliber driver year-in and year-out.
Brad Keselowski made an incredible run at the finish of the Geico 500 at Talladega to win the race and lock himself into the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But he has been under a lot of heat for the post-race drama created at Charlotte with Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
In the midst of all the chaos, Keselowski has now re-emerged as a championship favorite.
“It all kind of matters where we go from here with it, but certainly very proud of this past Sunday’s win,” Keselowski said in a press conference at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday. We’ve got four critical races in front of us. We’re probably going to need to win at least one of them and our heads down and focused, certainly coming here to Texas in about a week and a half to start that race weekend.”
Keselowski leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with six victories in 2014. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano trails him by just one as the two have become a force to be reckon with on a weekly basis.
He might not be making friends in the process of winning all of these races, but it is what is rare about the 30-year-old driver. Remember, at the beginning of his career, Keselowski was racing for his family-run organization in the Camping World Truck Series. He struggled to find sponsorship, but a few decent runs helped him land a job for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Nationwide Series team.
When Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. missed the race at Talladega, most people didn’t realize that some of the sport’s top drivers have not qualifying for a Sprint Cup Series event at one time or another. Jimmie Johnson even DNQ’d for a Nationwide Series race in 2000. Keselowski has missed a pair of events in the Nationwide Series and Truck Series, including one in 2012. But what might shock most people is that he’s missed three Cup Series events, and even did so while driving for Hendrick Motorsports at Dover in 2009.
That experience has made Keselowski the intimidating force that we now know.
“This season, and this point in time and probably throughout my career, it’s going to be racing as hard as I can race with a passion for winning,” Keselowski said on his demeanor. “It’s probably going to ruffle some feathers of people that have been in the sport longer than I have and kind of feel like this is their territory, but the alternative option of rolling over and playing dead just isn’t in my DNA and I don’t plan on ever allowing it to be.”
With a handful of races left in the season and Keselowski being on probation for a few more weeks, he’s going to be gunning for wins just as hard as ever. The intimidation factor that he brings to the sport on and off the track is one that has been missing for quite some time. There have been drivers that have intimidation in one of these two areas, yet Keselowski’s rare personality has helped breed him into a driver that is on the brink of winning his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
“Maybe sometimes I articulate it better than others, but I feel like I’m here to do one job and that’s to win races for my team. I’m not looking to make enemies, but certainly, priority number one is not making friends.”
In a wreck-filled Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano was able to come out on top for the fourth time in the 2014 season for Team Penske. The Connecticut-native, who won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Loudon, has now locked himself into the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
During the Sylvania 300, there were 15 cautions as nine of the 16 drivers in the Chase were involved in incidents. However, Logano was able to survive after taking four tires during his final pit stop as his No. 22 Ford worked through traffic as five yellow flags were thrown within the final 50 laps. The victory marks the seventh in 211 career starts for the 24-year-old. Combined with his teammate Brad Keselowski, the Team Penske organization now has eight wins on the year; the first time they have amassed that many triumphs since Ryan Newman won eight races in 2003.
"This is my home race track, the coolest place to win for me," Logano said. "I could never pick a better race track to win. I watched my first Cup race here when I was five and I won that other Cup race here, but I just felt like I had to win one the right way here, and this means so much. I’ve got to thank all the boys at Team Penske. We’re doing what we’ve got to do to win this thing right now – both teams are – and I’m proud of that. This is my home track so it means so much to me.”
Keselowski had the fastest car throughout the race, and led the first 37 laps after starting from the pole. However, during the competition caution period, crew chief Paul Wolfe and he elected to take four tires – contrary to what everyone else did inside of the top 15. Keselowski dropped to 15th on the restart, and fell as far back as 22nd. With a drop more than 100 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth and he got together. Keselowski spun, but didn’t sustain any damage to his car. On Lap 228, the No. 2 Ford was back out front until Lap 268, but wasn’t able to hold onto the lead with a hard-charging Kevin Harvick taking over for a few laps until Logano set sail as he led the final 29 laps.
Jeff Gordon, who was in position to lock himself into Round 2 of the Chase, blew a tire with nine laps remaining in the race. The orange-soaked No. 24 Chevrolet raced inside of the top five throughout the 300-lap event, but finished the day with a 26th-place result. He now sits seventh in points, but is ahead of 12th-place driver Kasey Kahne by 15 markers.
Denny Hamlin finished 37th in the No. 11 Toyota after a wild day for Joe Gibbs Racing. His car was experiencing trouble getting his fuel tank full. During the caution flag on Lap 104, he brought his car down pit road to get the issue fixed. With a lack of comprehension for what was occurring, Hamlin began to scream at his crew chief Darian Grubb. He ended up getting collected in a multi-car wreck on Lap 179, which collected Cole Whitt, Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan.
Kyle Larson finished in the runner-up position for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. He came on strong late in the race after running outside of the top 20 during the first half of the event. Larson recorded his seventh top-five finish of 2014. His teammate Jamie McMurray had a strong showing at Loudon. The No. 1 car was inside of the top five for the duration of the Sylvania 300. Although he was not able to lead a lap, McMurray was the strongest non-Chase driver in the race. Larson currently holds a 39-point advantage over McMurray for the 17th position in the standings, which is the highest a driver can finish if they did not make the Chase.
Aric Almirola closed the gap to 12th-place in points with a sixth-place result in the No. 43 Ford. He is just 10 points behind Kahne, and is within four markers of the three drivers in front of him. Kurt Busch fell to 15th in the standings as he blew a tire on Lap 221. The finish dropped him back from ninth in points and is now behind Hamlin and Greg Biffle, who finished 16th after being multiple laps down on Sunday afternoon.
Five of the 16 drivers in the Chase finished outside of the top 20. Harvick is now locked into Round 2 of the Chase after finishing in third-place. He is 45 points ahead of Kahne, which is more than a full race advantage.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Sprint Cup has finally arrived. However, things are quite different this year.
In a move to have more drama to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, there will be four drivers eliminated after every three races. At the end of the season, four drivers will battle it out for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a one-of-a-kind duel.
With no way to know what to expect, the 16 drivers in the Chase will be gunning it out to make sure they don’t get eliminated. If a driver is out of contention, they can only contend for a position in points within the group they were eliminated with. But this is going to making things eccentric for the sport over the final 10 weeks of the season.
The 16 drivers in the Chase are now set. Here are my expectations for those drivers:
- Brad Keselowski: Keselowski should make it to the final round in the championship. He is on a tear as of late, especially in qualifying. Through just 26 races, he has led a career-high 1,278 laps; that’s more than 17 percent of all laps that he has completed. However, he has to make sure the team is not only contending for wins, but that they are also consistently up front in case someone else gets into trouble.
- Jeff Gordon: Gordon is having his best season in quite some time. There is something different about the driver of the No. 24 this year. He has developed an unbelievable relationship with crew chief Alan Gustafson. Throughout the year, he has been one of the five quickest cars at just about every single event. If he can take the momentum he had from pacing the Sprint Cup Series during the regular season to the Chase, he will undoubtedly become a five-time champion.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He has had a good season, but that’s to his standards – not to Hendrick Motorsports standards. There is no doubt that he is one of the most consistent drivers in the Chase as he has a 10.9 average finish. However, it seems like he races inside of the top 10 for approximately two to four races at a time, and then has something go wrong that causes a setback. Expect him to be right on the border of making it to the final round at Homestead, but he might make it as Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix are each strong tracks for him.
- Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has not been known as the clear favorite this year. It’s likely because of the annual summer drought that the No. 48 team has gone through. However, this team is going to be just as strong in the Chase. Over the past four races, he has four top-10 finishes. A key to winning the title in this format will be consistently running up front, and Johnson did just that last year with just one finish worse than ninth. But Chad Knaus and he have had some awful luck at Homestead. If he can stay out of trouble at Homestead, he will probably be crowned the champion once again.
- Joey Logano: By far, 2014 has been the best year of this young man’s career. It’s hard to believe he is just 24 with six full-time seasons in the Cup Series. However, with his first multi-win season, he has begun to learn how to be a factor for wins on a weekly basis. The intermediate tracks have been insanely strong for the No. 22 Ford. He has never been in a position to win a championship like he is this year, and that could hurt him down the road as he deals with pressure against the veterans. With Team Penske’s speed this year, there is no reason why Logano can’t battle for his first career title.
- Kevin Harvick: This week, Harvick swapped pit crews with his owner, Tony Stewart. The move will likely take away the No. 4 team’s inconsistency on pit road, which has taken away valuable track position for the team throughout the season. Even though he only has two victories this year, Harvick has been in position to win about seven races. If he can have luck on his side for once, he will be right there with Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski at Homestead.
- Carl Edwards: Even though switching teams after the season is completed is not a distraction for the No. 99 team, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization is going through some blatantly obvious struggles. However, he has been the strongest driver with the team, and with some solid results – he will be there for the Eliminator Round. After that, it’ll be tough for him to make it to the final round, especially with Martinsville and Texas; two tracks he somewhat struggled with this year.
- Kyle Busch: It has been a roller coaster year for all of Joe Gibbs Racing. Clearly, Busch can win a few races given the right circumstances. Things are cleared up with Dave Rogers and he. However, with just nine top 10s this year, he hasn’t shown this is going to be a championship caliber season. With Loudon and Dover in the Challenger Round, Busch can easily make his way into the Contender Round. It’ll be quite the challenge to get past that round, but if he can come out of Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega with a top 10 in each race, he’ll be able to advance.
- Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been extremely inconsistent all year. However, he has been running rather well lately. If he can have some luck in the Chase, he can get rather far. He had a rough start to the season, but with 11 top 10s to this point, there is hope that Hamlin can at least get by the first round.
- Kurt Busch: Busch finally returned to Victory Lane this year and has shown speed nearly every week. In the Chase, there are a few tracks that he has struggled at. He should race his way into the second round, but beyond that is unlikely with a season full of inconsistency as he has just seven top 10s this year.
- Kasey Kahne: Besides his win at Atlanta, 2014 has been a season to forget for Kahne. With 10 top 10s this year, he hasn’t been horrific, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. The No. 5 team will make it past the first round, but since they have been so inconsistent, it’s unlikely that they’ll go past that.
- Aric Almirola: Almirola was extremely lucky with his win at Daytona. Without that, there was not a shot that he would’ve been in the Chase. Even if he does awful in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, he’ll finish 16th at the worst, which would be a career-best for the driver of the No. 43 car. Chicagoland and New Hampshire have been good tracks for him. Although he is a long shot to make it past the first round, there is a slight chance that he can do so with a little bit of luck.
- AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger’s situation is similar to that of the No. 43 team. It’s unlikely that he’ll get past the first round, but stranger things have happened. With four top 10s this season, he has the potential to do well if he can get the most out of the limited equipment that he has. Running with an alliance with Richard Childress Racing has certainly helped JTG Daugherty Racing, but it has not solved all of their on-track issues. Worst case scenario – Allmendinger will finish 16th in points instead of outside the top 20.
- Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has yet to score a win this year. He has run better than his JGR teammates all season, but just hasn’t had the luck he’s needed. With his 16 top 10s, Kenseth should make it far into the Chase. However, he won’t make it to the final round. Even if he can score a victory before the end of the season, it is going to be difficult for the No. 20 team to consistently be right there for wins as the entire crew has struggled somewhat this year.
- Greg Biffle: Biffle probably won’t make it past the first round of the Chase. He has had a brutal year. Somehow or another, the No. 16 team made the Chase based on points, albeit he has just three top fives. However, with five straight top 10 finishes prior to Richmond, he jumped six positions, which led him to 10th-place. If he can race like that, Biffle will make it past the first round. But if he struggles at the intermediate tracks like he has, then he won’t last too long in the Chase.
- Ryan Newman: This year, Newman has made a quiet, yet steady transition at RCR. He has 10 top 10 finishes, but he hasn’t really shown he is capable of winning races. Newman’s average finish is 14.1 through 26 races. Unless he earns a top five in one of the races in the first round, it’s going to be tough for him to advance. For the majority of the year, he has been a 15th-20th-place car, and he will need to improve upon that now.
Three. It doesn’t seem like a big number, yet it is a significant one for Jeff Gordon.
In a fierce battle with Joey Logano over the course of the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon was able to take the checkered flag for the third time in the 2014 season. Leading 69 of the 200 laps, he tied his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with three wins each through 23 races.
With the victory, Gordon retakes the lead in the championship standings – giving him the top seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup as long as Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. or Brad Keselowski do not score more wins than he does until Richmond. This is the first time since 2011 that Gordon has scored three victories in a season, and the last time he won more than three races in a single year was back in 2007, where he fell just short of winning his fifth title.
“It’s never easy to win at any of these tracks, especially when aerodynamics and track position mean so much,” Gordon said. “I thought we learned a lot the last time we were here on track position. Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) just called a perfect race. I kept getting on that inside lane and just not getting very good restarts. I knew it was going to get exciting with Kurt (Busch) and Joey (Logano). Those two are very, very aggressive; and of course Kurt got loose.”
“I didn’t have any trouble with my car sticking all day and I could be really aggressive with the car through the corners. But, the No. 24 and the No. 22 kind of got jammed up a little bit there and I was able to get a good run. The No. 22 tried to move up, but I was going to stay in the throttle one way or the other. We don’t have anything to lose at this point and that was our only chance to have a win.”
Logano led a race-high 86 laps on Sunday afternoon, but he just didn’t have enough for Gordon on the final restart. After debris was found in Turn 2 from Kurt Busch’s car, the caution flag flew with approximately 20 laps to go. The No. 22 car had a comfortable gap over Gordon’s Chevrolet, but he just couldn’t hold on during the restart. Kevin Harvick was able to get by Logano to finish in the runner-up position; scoring his fifth runner-up finish of the year.
Johnson had a roller coaster day in his No. 48 car. His crew had to hand him vice grip in the middle of a green-flag pit stop due to a problem with his shifter. As he drove his vehicle back on track, he attempted to put the grip on his shifter, but that didn’t work to the team’s planning. During a caution several laps later, a crew member was able to put it in his car, but at that point – Johnson was a lap down. He was able to come back to finish in the ninth position, albeit he did have a run in with Ryan Newman following the race.
Paul Menard finished the 400-mile event in the fourth position. He finished in the same position in the race at Michigan earlier this year; his best result of the season. Greg Biffle was able to capture a top-10 finish on Sunday afternoon. He was the strongest of the Roush Fenway Racing cars during the event. With an eighth-place finish, Biffle recorded his eighth top 10 of the year and is now in position to make the Chase.
Kyle Busch had trouble at Michigan; marking the third straight week he finished 39th or worse. On Lap 4, Busch hit the wall hard and was forced to go to the garage area. However, even with the poor finish, he clinched a spot in the Chase.
Following the competition caution, Danica Patrick got loose in Turn 2. Patrick spun underneath her teammate Jeff Burton. Trevor Bayne, Michael Annett, Matt Kenseth, Justin Allgaier and Martin Truex Jr. were each involved in the incident. On Lap 97, Kyle Larson blew a tire after running strong early in the race. Larson fell back outside of the top-20, but was making his way back towards the front of the field. However, when his car hit the wall, the No. 42 Chevrolet caught on fire. This was the first time in the Sprint Cup Series that an incident like this has occurred with the new policy that was announced on Friday morning. He was enabled to exit the car immediately, but did so extremely carefully.