In the summer, a journeyman catcher for the Boston Red Sox collected 20 hits in his first 40 at-bats. Sandy Leon wound up hitting .310. The law of averages caught up.
That's what happened to Kevin Harvick in Sunday's Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. He had won five of the previous six NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the mile track. Harvick couldn't bat .833 forever.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. @DaleJr
I just realized that. I have a new level of appreciation for @NASCAR fans. This is gut wrenching. https://t.co/5tEvPV7PzO2016-11-13 21:39:18
Harvick finished fourth but never led a lap. Joey Logano won. Harvick, who had never failed to qualify for a round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, didn't make the finals this time. Kyle Busch, who finished second at Phoenix, did. So did Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who had won the first two races in the round of eight.
"We had a chance and could take a swing for it," Harvick told NBC Sports afterward. "We just didn't quite have it all weekend. We made the car a ton better as we got into the race, so I'm proud of everyone for that."
Matt Kenseth appeared to have the race—and a berth in the Chase—in the bag until overtime. In a race scheduled for 312 laps, Kenseth tangled with Alex Bowman on the 317th of 324 laps actually run. It was a chain reaction.
Bowman, subbing for injured Dale Earnhardt Jr., had led 194 laps, but something went awry on a restart. A bump from behind by Busch sent Bowman's Chevrolet skidding. Kenseth didn't know he was still at the inside of the track. They collided. Kenseth, an ex-champion like Harvick, didn't make the finals, either.
It was unfortunate. The methodical Kenseth made a rare mistake when he could ill afford one. Bowman, 23 years old and competing in his ninth Cup race of the season, had it right at the media conference afterward:
I mean, that's what happens. We're here to win races and doing everything we can to win races. I don't think Kyle (Busch) wrecked Matt (Kenseth). I don't think I wrecked Matt. I think the situation, it just all...happened like that. It's unfortunate, but I don't think you can really place the blame on one person. It just sucks for Matt.
Bowman restarted poorly, probably a result of spinning his tires. Kyle Busch, in the gas, couldn't get out of it fast enough. Kenseth's spotter told him he was clear. The comedy of small errors produced a disastrous result.
A championship cake rises while, all around, cookies crumble. Hopes get dashed. Dreams linger for survivors of the process. A solitary race, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, remains.
Kenseth's Toyota limped home in 21st place. He told NBC Sports, "It was a tough 15 minutes."
|The Final Four|
|Driver||2016 Wins||Career Wins||Past Titles|
Five past champions—Harvick, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart—are gone. Two, Johnson and Kyle Busch, remain, and the format adopted in 2014 allows only four at the end. They are worthy. It's close to the best that could be expected.
Johnson, if he can win at Homestead or finish ahead of the other three finalists, will join Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as winners of a record seven championships.
Edwards can put forever behind him his agonizing loss in 2011. He and Stewart staged the greatest 10-race duel in Chase history, which Stewart won by a tiebreaker. The 10-race Chase of that time is no more. Now it's segmented, and the final comes down to four drivers who begin the final race even. They have 5,000 arbitrarily designated points apiece.
It's wonderful by design, and this year, it's wonderful in application. The finals are balanced in age: Logano is 26, Kyle Busch 31, Edwards 37 and Johnson 41. Johnson has won the most titles overall and Busch the most recently. Edwards has finished third or better three times before. Logano is young and ready.
The four finalists have combined for 14 victories this year and 162 in their respective careers.
Phoenix bade farewell with an extraordinary outcome. Slightly over a year—and 38 races—earlier, Logano's title hopes ended in Martinsville, Virginia, when Kenseth wrecked him. This time Kenseth's crash paved the way for Logano making the finals. It wasn't a clean reversal—Logano might have made the finals anyway and Busch got eliminated—but it was worth pondering.
"We haven't showed our strength here in a few weeks," Kyle Busch said, "but we've shown consistency. I'm hoping that this consistency is what shows our strength next week."
"It's a pretty stout group," Edwards said. "I think whoever wins it should take a lot of pride in that."
The finals have no outlier. No Ryan Newman in 2014. No Martin Truex Jr., whose performance more merited a spot in the finals this year, in 2015. All three manufacturers—Kyle Busch and Edwards in Toyotas, Johnson in a Chevrolet, Logano in a Ford—have a shot.
Each of the four who remain belongs.
"Man, this feels so good," Logano told NBC Sports' Marty Snider. "I've never felt this good about a win before. There is so much on the line, and everyone brings their A-game when it comes to winning championships."
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.