NASCAR at Phoenix 2015: Winners and Losers from the Race for Heroes 500
Rain in Phoenix? It happened!
About as likely as said precipitation was, it seemed just as likely that a NASCAR elimination race of this stature would be called due to weather, but that’s what happened.
After six-and-a-half hours, the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 hit the bricks under the lights, the first time since 2010. After 219 of 312 laps and a serendipitous pit stop, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race—his third of the season—and sealed the fate of the four championship-eligible drivers.
The race was unsatisfying, but that doesn’t matter. Was it, you know, fair?
“I don’t think it matters what’s fair,” said eliminated driver Brad Keselowski during the NBC Sports broadcast. “It matters what entertains the fans. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s hard to say this race entertained the fans, but there are winners and losers to get to, so click through and turn the key.
Loser: The Interesting Case of Joey Gase
Joey Gase, a driver who nobody beyond Mrs. Gase had heard of, wrecked and dumped a non-water fluid on the track on Lap 196. It brought out a lengthy caution.
And as fast as the cars drove all night, because of the long caution, there was no outrunning the rain.
The red flag came out, and within a few short minutes the race was called.
The question became would there be enough time to get that restart underway. The nasty fluid-spilling wreck tanked any chance this race had of finishing in a respectable, satisfying manner.
Winner: The Weather Watch
For an elimination race, Phoenix wasn’t entirely exciting, but the weather watch? That made for some compelling television around 11 p.m. EST. It was about the only thing that could keep a man from falling asleep in his Red Sox sweatshirt and shorts.
You can’t beat this kind of drama. “One big cell of rain skimmed the track and just missed,” tweeted USA Today's Jeff Gluck. “But another one is closing in, and it could be a race-ender." (prophetic, indeed)
When the rain threatened Jeff Gordon Raceway, about 20 tweets burst into the feed. NASCAR on NBC ripped off, “Will it rain or no?! Drama, drama, drama!”
And then during a long caution to clean the track up after Joey Gase (who?) crashed, FoxSports.com’s Tom Jensen tweeted, “Raining now.”
Loser: Jumping the Start
Kurt Busch started the race second beside pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson. The green flag dropped, and Busch hit the start-finish line first.
That’s a no-no only for the start of a race. On regular restarts, it doesn’t matter as long as you accelerate with the leader.
This penalty sent Busch through pit road and from first to 43rd.
“I had no reason to jump the start, to get excited,” he said after the race during the broadcast. “I had 312 laps to go race today. We’ve had a fantastic season.”
He missed the first few races of the year following the fallout of the alleged domestic abuse claims of his ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, about which no charges were filed. Busch alluded to this after the race.
“[Crew chief] Tony Gibson and the guys believed in me,” Busch said. “They knew there was a little bit of tarnish and they knew I had to put a bit of polish on it and I did that all year long. We worked our way all the way to the final two races. I wish it would stop raining so we could go out there and go again.”
Busch had a car that could win at Phoenix. He went from 43rd all the way up to seventh, but the rain shortened his day and his chances to win his first Sprint Cup title since 2004.
Winner: Proper Pit Picks
Earnhardt missed winning at Talladega by a splitter, yet he managed to sweep the Eliminator Round for Hendrick Motorsports with his red-flag, rain-shortened win at Phoenix.
“You like to win them at the checkered flag,” he said during the broadcast. “My team is very proud of this because they gave me a great car for qualifying. The reason why we won was how we qualified this weekend.”
Qualifying allowed his team to choose the first pit stall. This won the race. As he pitted, the Gase caution came out.
Enter NBC Sports NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte, who described what qualifying gave Junior, “This pit stall, pit pick is by qualifying. While on pit road the caution comes out, that means he must race the leader to the start-finish line. That’s where he’ll be scored. About 40-60 feet, he’s then frozen, he blends on the racetrack, the rains come, a win for the 88.”
“It is a rain-shortened race and I know there’s guys in the field that wanted to see this thing get going again and race into the last round,” Junior said. “Myself, if I had four to six inches at Talladega, we’d be going to Homestead. It works out for some and for some it doesn’t.”
The win made three in a row for HMS, something that didn’t get much play, namely because only one HMS driver, Gordon, is alive come Miami next week.
Loser: Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards just ran out of time. During the last rain delay, the one that ended up ending the race, Edwards was optimistic about heading back out onto the track.
“Let’s just talk about how quick those Air Titans can dry this thing,” he said during the broadcast. “Those things are amazing. It won’t be 30 minutes before we’re out there. We want so badly to get out there and race. I don’t want to finish this like this.”
He was within striking distance of Truex, but he needed the race to go green.
“We want to race. I don’t care if we do this in rowboats or on foot or whatever we’ve got to do,” he said.
Then the crowd started cheering, and everyone then knew that NASCAR had called the race and that Junior had won. Edwards threw down his umbrella in frustration.
With 100 laps or so to go, he could have raced into the championship four. But the rain-shortened race meant he would never get that shot.
Winner: Martin Truex Jr.
If there’s one driver that actually warms your heart to see reach Homestead, it has to be Truex, right?
The single-car team hailing from, of all places, Denver, sends its Furniture Row man to Miami with a one-in-four chance of taking the Sprint Cup.
“It means everything to us,” Truex said during the NBC Sports broadcast. “What can I say about the whole team? A dream come true for us. To put nine really good weeks together was just awesome. I got a little nervous there when the caution came out there for us.”
Truex said he drives well at Homestead, and who can argue with three top-fives and seven top-10s from 10 starts?
“This is the kind of thing you dream about as a little kid,” he said.
The other drivers are solid too and combined for eight wins on the season, but at this point, all Truex needs to do is keep his eye on the other three and take it from there.
Loser: Joey Logano
Logano won six times this year, and it feels like it was all for nothing. Matt Kenseth is probably snickering somewhere that Logano, who would have restarted third had the race not been cancelled, failed to reach Homestead for a second straight year.
Logano said during the NBC Sports broadcast:
We can’t help the weather, right? It didn’t work out. Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done all year. Our heads are still high. It’s been a great season. I just wanted another shot at it. When you’re this close you just want one more restart. Damn! I just wanted one more restart!
If he had that chance, if he knew he was racing against the clouds, what would he have done?
“Do whatever I’ve got to do,” he said, “try to win the race. It’s hard to play the race with rain in the area. You just hope there’s another shot, that two of them slip up and you can run along the bottom or do something like that.”
Over the course of the entire race, he wasn’t as fast as Harvick, but in short spurts, he’s one of the best restarters in the game. He, like so many other drivers desperate for a win, needed at least one more shot.
For Sliced Bread, it’s all the more frustrating for how Kenseth barreled him into the fence at Martinsville. Then Logano’s left-rear tire blew at Texas, putting all the pressure on Phoenix.
He was right there, but then, as you know, it rained in the desert, and the driver who swept the Contender Round was done.
Sure, Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex move on, but think about it.
An elimination race—and not just any elimination race—but the elimination race that determined the championship four was called by rain, this after a six-hour delay.
Earlier in the season, an inconsequential race (relatively speaking, of course) at Daytona—the Coke Zero 400—didn’t start until after 11 p.m. and then finished around 2:40 a.m. with Earnhardt winning and Austin Dillon flying into the catch fence.
Yet in the sport’s playoffs, the Chase, NASCAR cut the race short by 100 laps, thus disallowing drivers like Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano the chance to gut it out.
It just doesn’t make much sense.
After such a long delay, the race probably should have been postponed until Monday; that way NASCAR could have guaranteed 312 weather-independent laps.
Clipping an elimination race short, not allowing the drivers to determine their fates, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.