With rain steadily falling on Phoenix International Raceway and NASCAR putting Sunday’s race under the red flag 93 laps short of the scheduled distance, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and members of the No. 88 team milled about on pit road hoping and waited for officials to declare the event over.
Earnhardt and company didn’t have to wait too long and when word came, euphoria broke out. Several crew members emphatically lauded the decisive final pit stop that handed their driver the lead just before the sky opened up.
“I f***ing told you that [stop] was going to win us that race,” one crew guy said. “That was (g.d.) damn killer pit work,” another said. “Who f***ing cares how we one, we won and we’ll take it,” a third said.
No. 88 wasn’t the best car — a distinction that belonged to Kevin Harvick, who led 143 of a possible 219 laps — but strategy and luck are often just as big determining factors in winning and losing as outright speed. Earnhardt’s crew delivered when it absolutely needed to Sunday.
Thanks to quick pit work, Earnhardt narrowly edged in front of Harvick off pit road just as a crash involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase occurred. Shortly thereafter the rain came to give Earnhardt his third win of the season and first on a non-restrictor plate track.
“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.”
NASCAR Power Rankings
1. Kevin Harvick (Last week: 2)
No broken shifter, engine going flat or miscues on pit road or strategically — from beginning to end, Phoenix was a much-needed clean race for the defending champ. And even though Mother Nature snatched away a presumed victory, Harvick isn’t going to quibble with finishing second when it qualified him for the championship round.
2. Kyle Busch (LW: 1)
To earn a Chase berth Kyle Busch employed sheer dominance by winning three consecutive summer races and four of five. But in the postseason he’s gone with a different game plan, one that calls for him to finish as best as possible every week and avoid catastrophic results. And wouldn’t you know it, Busch finds himself in the unfamiliar position of entering the final race of the season still in title contention.
3. Joey Logano (LW: 3)
Had it not begun raining when it did, a very intriguing and presumably highly contentious restart would have then ensued with Joey Logano lined up third and desperately needing a victory. Considering the stakes it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think bedlam of some sort would have gone down entering Turn 2, perhaps a reenactment of Kansas with Harvick playing the role Matt Kenseth.
4. Jeff Gordon (LW: 6)
Hard to believe, but there is just one race left before Jeff Gordon retires to become a full-time broadcaster. And what a way to end an illustrious career as one of four drivers with a shot at the championship. The race is also on a track that’s been good to Gordon in recent years with a victory in 2012 and a near-win last season where he led the most laps before a late pit stop relegated him to 10th.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 7)
Hindsight is 20/20, but for the faithful followers of NASCAR’s most popular driver there will be some serious lamenting how the final laps played out in the Round 2 elimination race at Talladega. Because had there not been a caution or the yellow flag dropped just a few seconds later, Earnhardt almost certainly would have won and thus, not been cut from the playoffs and would be preparing to race for the championship Sunday.
6. Carl Edwards (LW: 4)
Standing on pit road during the red flag stoppage and having just completed an interview with NBC Sports, Edwards was informed NASCAR called the race, which officially dropped him out the playoffs. If a reaction ever said it all, it was his.
7. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 5)
Overlooked in Furniture Row Racing’s improbable march to the championship round is that the team is switching from Chevrolet to Toyota next season. While the change will benefit the single-car outfit in the long-term, in the immediate it does make for a bit of awkwardness. Then again, the last time an organization changed manufacturers in the midst of title contention came in 2012 and Team Penske took its first series crown that season.
8. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 11)
He started on the pole and led the opening 44 laps, but Jimmie Johnson’s bid for a second straight win came undone when he got caught speeding on pit road. With rain truncating the race there wasn’t enough time to recover and he left Phoenix with a fifth-place finish.
9. Kurt Busch (LW: 8)
Video doesn’t lie and replays conclusively showed Kurt Busch nosing ahead of Johnson, who started on the pole, as they took the green flag to start Sunday’s race. An understandably frustrated Busch was adamant immediately afterward he did nothing wrong to warrant a penalty, going as far to say he would commission a survey on social media. By the next day, obviously having viewed the tape, he admitted fault and only asked that NASCAR be consistent with its rulings going forward, a reasonable request.
I broke a rule, and NASCAR made the correct call. If this is something that continues to be consistently called, then I’m at peace with it.
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) November 16, 2015
10. Brad Keselowski (LW: 9)
Needing a win to advance, Brad Keselowski never had much of a shot with the No. 2 car just not possessing the necessary speed to be competitive. He lagged throughout practice and qualifying and that carried over to the race, where he averaged an 11th running position and finished ninth.
11. Denny Hamlin (LW: 10)
After opening the Chase with a first and second, Denny Hamlin’s performance has been up-and-down since. Case in point, over the last four races he’s finished 37th, third, 38th and eighth, the latter of which came Sunday.
12. Ryan Newman (LW: Unranked)
Though meaning little in the big picture besides a few more dollars in the year-end payout, it’s interesting to note Ryan Newman (11th) is ranked one spot ahead of Johnson in the standings despite not winning a single race whereas Johnson owns five victories.