Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his third race of the season late Sunday night. It was the timing of a pit stop, a little luck and Mother Nature that all combined to give Earnhardt the 26th win of his career and his third of 2015. The field was also set for the final four who will compete for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup title in just one week. Here’s how it all went down on a long Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
After a delay of over six hours due to heavy rain showers and 19 pace laps while track drying finished up, Jimmie Johnson led the field to the green under the lights. Kurt Busch was able to get by on the outside for the lead at the end of lap 1, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third behind Johnson, Kyle Larson was fourth, Carl Edwards fifth. Jamie McMurray’s Chevy was smoking with a tire rub after contact with Kasey Kahne.
On lap 6, NASCAR ruled that Kurt Busch had jumped the start and gave him a pass through penalty. He drove through the pits on lap 8, handing the lead to Johnson. Busch rejoined the field 43rd, still on the lead lap. By lap 18, Johnson was catching the back of the field. Kurt Busch, who had made his way to 35th, was just in front of Johnson by lap 28 trying to stay on the lead lap. Harvick moved to second on lap 34. Kurt Busch was up to 29th.
The first caution, a NASCAR mandated one, came out on lap 41. In an effort to dry pit road, the field was brought through the pits without being allowed to stop. The leaders all came in for stops the next time around. Harvick was first off pit road followed by Joey Logano, Edwards, Earnhardt, and Kyle Busch; all took only two tires. Johnson came out sixth with four tires but was penalized for speeding on pit road and sent to the tail end of the longest line; he restarted 28th.
Harvick grabbed the lead from Logano on the restart on lap 47; Earnhardt was able to get the second spot from Logano on lap 50. By lap 63, Kurt Busch was up to 15th, Johnson 20th. Harvick’s lead over Earnhardt was 1.2 seconds.
The lead for Harvick was up to 2.6 seconds by lap 82; Kurt Busch was looking for 13th from Brad Keselowski, Johnson was up to 16th. By lap 101 there were 24 cars on the lead lap; Harvick’s lead was three seconds. Logano retook second from Earnhardt on lap 102. The lead was just over 4 seconds by lap 108; Kurt Busch was 11th, Johnson was 12th. Earnhardt went back to second on lap 113 as Harvick’s lead was 5.1 seconds.
Logano started a round of green flag stops on lap 118; Earnhardt, Truex, Edwards and Harvick followed a lap later. All took four tires and fuel. When the stops cycled through, Harvick was back in the lead, Logano was second, Earnhardt was third, followed by Edwards and Jeff Gordon. By lap 145 Harvick’s lead was 2.7 seconds as more rain was reported to be closing in. Johnson had rallied back to 8th by lap 171; Kurt Busch was 10th as Harvick’s lead was just under 2 seconds with 13 cars on the lead lap.
Logano again led a round of green flag stops on lap 193, Harvick and others came in two laps later. As the stops were underway, Joey Gase crashed on lap 196 entering turn 3 and caution two came out. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was also involved; both had heavy damage with Stenhouse able to drive to the garage. Those among the top 12 who had not pitted came in for stops including Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Gordon and Johnson.
Earnhardt led, Harvick was second, Logano was third followed by Johnson and Gordon .There was an extensive cleanup that caused the restart to be waved off twice; it was waved off a third time as the rain began to fall. The rain picked up and NASCAR was finally forced to stop the field and put out the red flag on lap 219. It wasn’t long before the rain picked up and NASCAR was forced to call the race and declare Earnhardt the winner. Harvick was second, Logano, was third, Kyle Busch was fourth, and Johnson rallied from his penalty to finish fifth.
Gordon finished sixth, Kurt Busch seventh, Denny Hamlin was eighth, Keselowski ninth and Aric Almirola 10th. 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. 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.