In a battle with Mother Nature, the only winners late Sunday night was Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the four drivers who will race for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After a rain delay of over six hours, Earnhardt took the lead on pit road thanks to a timely caution and won the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway when rain returned and NASCAR was forced to call the race early.
“We had an idea that the rain was in the area, but all the circumstances that played out at the end of the race are just kind of luck I think,” Earnhardt said after his 26th career win and this third of the season. “I want to give Greg (Ives, crew chief) a lot of credit and the guys. They gave us a good enough car to come here and qualify well. 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 all night.”
As he has been for the last four Phoenix races, Kevin Harvick was the class of the field for much of the early part of the race. Harvick took the lead during the races first caution on lap 41 after pole sitter Jimmie Johnson, who had led the first laps, was penalized for speeding on pit road. Harvick would go on to lead 143 of the 219 laps that were run before the rains came again and NASCAR called the race.
“I’ve been through a lot longer rain delays than this one,” Harvick said. “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? But, bring NASCAR, and you’ll catch-up on your rain.”
The winning move for Earnhardt came on pit road during a round of green flag stops that had started on lap 193. While Earnhardt was being serviced, Joey Gase and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got together on the track bringing out the races second caution. However, because Earnhardt was pitted just before the start finish line and was already pitting he was able to come out with the lead crossing the line ahead of the field.
The cleanup on the track was extensive and NASCAR was forced to call off the restart twice. The third attempt was also called off as the rain began to fall again. NASCAR kept the field circling the track for over 20 laps before they were forced to bring the field to pit road and park them. The rain began falling harder and NASCAR called the race at lap 219 declaring Earnhardt the winner.
“When something like this quirky happens we were able to capitalize,” Earnhardt said. “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. A lot of guys would love to see this race continue and have an opportunity to race to the Chase. If I had four or six inches at Talladega we would be going there to Homestead to race for a championship too. It works out for some and some it doesn’t.”
Harvick was second, Joey Logano, who needed to win to advance to the final four was third, Kyle Busch who did advance was fourth, and Johnson rallied from his penalty to finish fifth.
“It’s hard to play the race with rain in the area,” Logano said. “You don’t know what’s gonna happen, but you just hope there’s another shot. You hope that there’s a restart and if two of them slip up and you’re able to put it three-wide on the bottom, or do something like that, but just didn’t ever have the opportunity there at the end. We had plenty of opportunities to try to get ourselves to the front, we just weren’t as fast as the 4 (Harvick). We were a solid second-place car, but Junior timed it out really well when they pitted to that caution and it worked our really well for them.”
The shortened race left several Chase drivers wondering what could have been. Kurt Busch had a shot at the win early, taking the lead at the start of the race only to be penalized by NASCAR for jumping the start and given a pass through penalty. He fought back from 43rd position and finished seventh, but ended the race 21 points below the Chase cutoff.
“We had a great season,” Busch said. “We won two races, sat on three poles. We did everything possible to put polish on a season like that and get out there with elbow grease and work hard at it. There is some tarnish that is sitting there, polish and polish and that is all I kept doing this whole year.”
Logano’s Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski never had a shot to win and finished ninth and was also eliminated. Carl Edwards who missed the cut off by only five points finished 12th.
“Just very disappointing for this whole Stanley Toyota team,” Edwards’ crew chief Darian Grubb said. “How hard they’ve worked all year to come down to something as simple as a rain out. We feel like we could have raced our way back in there and had a shot at it. We were still five points out, just like we were five points coming in. We knew that was going to be a tough situation, but it ended up that it bit us and I just hate it for these guys.”
Jeff Gordon who locked himself into the final round with a win at Martinsville finished sixth, behind Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin was eighth; Aric Almirola finished 10th behind Keselowski. The full results can be found here. The final four who will race for the season title are Gordon, Kyle Busch, defending champion Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. who finished 14th Sunday. The Ford EcoBoost 400 the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and the race that will crown the series champion, will take place Sunday November 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with live coverage on NBC at 3:00 p.m. ET.