The nominal winner of NASCAR's penultimate Sprint Cup race was also nominally popular because Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the sport's most popular driver, but in terms of racing, the outcome at Phoenix International Raceway was almost incidental.
Earnhardt's third victory of the season would have been more satisfying had it propelled him into the Chase finals on November 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, but by the segmented winnowing-out process known as the Chase, Earnhardt had already been eliminated from title contention.
It would have been more stirring had he led more than one lap at speed. The crucial final 21, he spent pitting and idling around the track while rain approached. Earnhardt caught a break. He was pitting when the yellow flag waved for a minor accident that inexplicably required 16 laps to clean up, thus giving rain all the time necessary to cancel the rest of a modest spectacle.
“I think the reason why we won this race is because of the way we qualified to give ourselves a position to be up front (well, relatively near it) all night," Earnhardt said to NBC Sports. "When something this quirky happened, we were able to capitalize. It’s a rain-shortened win, but my guys are very proud of it because of how the car ran all weekend, and we put ourselves in this position. ...It works out for some and [for] some it doesn’t."
Some would say Rain won the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Most would say it shaped the winner and the four Chase finalists—Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.—because rain ended the race 93 laps shy of its presumed distance and the timing was pitilessly arbitrary.
Never mind that the start was delayed by rain that fell most of the afternoon—in the desert!—and the end came with midnight beckoning back East.
"I guess I'm just pleased that I didn't have any bad luck," Kyle Busch said. "We didn't necessarily have any good luck through the Chase, either."
In the Chase, no luck was good luck, for the younger Busch brother, at least.
Mother Nature stopped Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch, who could have only advanced by winning, and Carl Edwards, who needed those vanishing laps to pick up enough positions to oust Truex. Logano finished third and Kurt Busch ninth. Twelfth place wasn't good enough for Edwards, who missed the finals by five points to Truex, who managed a sufficient 14th.
It's all just spilt milk to cry over now. Phoenix was dreary and anticlimactic. It produced four finalists with great timing.
Gordon picked the right time to win his only race of the season to date and has a chance to retire at the top by winning a fifth championship in his final season. Gordon, 44, has already analyzed the results of the last two weeks, when dominant drivers, Keselowski in Texas and Harvick at Phoenix, lost at the end.
"There's only one lap I want to lead," he said, "and that's the last one."
Kyle Busch has a chance to toss a history of Chase underperforming aside. Harvick is the reigning champion with the incredible knack for finishing second, and Truex is the long shot, a representative of a single-car (though heavily assisted) operation headquartered in Denver, Colorado.
"We have overcome a lot of obstacles ... and ... a lot of odds," Truex said.
Obstacles—large ones—and odds—long ones—define the process.
|Down to the Final Four for a Title|
|Driver||Wins||2nd Places||Avg. FInish||Poles|
|Martin Truex Jr.||1||1||12.2||0|
The four finalists enter the Ford EcoBoost 400, well, Ford-less. Gordon, Harvick and Truex drive Chevrolets. Busch pilots a Toyota. They have combined for nine victories. Put together Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt and the total swells to 19, but the former are in and the latter are out. Forty-three drivers will still be in the field, but only four will be relevant.
The Phoenix rain was a bad break. It messed everything up. It relegated Harvick to his record-tying 12th second-place finish in a single season. He could set that record and win the championship as long as Gordon, Truex or Kyle Busch don't win the final race.
Harvick led 143 laps. At times, it seemed as if he was so far ahead that the rain could have fallen between his car and all the others. Keselowski had been that dominant at Texas. He didn't make it, either. Harvick admitted it was "kind of bittersweet," but he can still "chase." He won Homestead last year and, by so doing, a championship.
"Hey, you win some and you lose some," Harvick said. "Sometimes you're on the right side of it and sometimes you're on the wrong side of it. [Sunday night] we were on the wrong side of it, but in the big picture, we're racing for a championship next week. You just can't control a lot of these things. Who would have thought you'd come to the desert and it's going to rain?"
Sixteen started this Hunger Games-type playoff system in Joliet, Illinois, on September 20. Each segment, consisting of three races, shaved away four, to 12 drivers, then eight and now four.
Logano has won three of the nine Chase races to date. Seven drivers have won at least one. Of those, only Gordon and Harvick remain in contention.
Kenseth doomed Logano by wrecking him at Martinsville, and thus Kenseth was suspended for the two races that followed that short-track debacle, redeemed only by Gordon's 93rd career victory. Keselowski succumbed to Johnson's victory at Texas, where Keselowski led 93 percent of the laps.
The Chase is a guarantor of excitement but a scourge upon the face of fairness.
May the best of the remaining emerge triumphant.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.