AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR’s championship field was set Sunday at rain-soaked Phoenix International Raceway when the race was called 93 laps from the scheduled finish — denying Joey Logano and three others a chance to race their way into the finale.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race when NASCAR pulled the plug after a frustrating day of trying to get a pivotal Chase for the Sprint Cup championship elimination round completed. Rain initially delayed the start almost seven hours and turned a day race into a showcase under the lights, and Earnhardt inherited the lead when Kevin Harvick made a routine pit stop.
“That’s the way this game is played. That’s the way this Chase is,” Logano said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we’re still the strongest team on the race track.”
Earnhardt was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round, though, so the victory had no championship implications. Advancing into the season finale next Sunday were reigning series champion Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. They joined Jeff Gordon, who had earned his spot in the final four two weeks ago with a win at Martinsville, in the winner-take-all showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Eliminated Sunday were Logano and his teammate Brad Keselowski, as well as Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. All could have earned a spot in the finale with a victory at Phoenix, but the weather ruined their shot to race their way into the championship.
“I don’t think it matters what’s fair, it matters what entertains the fans and if the fans are happy then that’s what it’s all about,” said Keselowski.
But the fans were likely left unsatisfied after the anti-climactic ending.
It was a bitter defeat for Team Penske, which nearly locked both drivers into the finale. Logano, the Daytona 500 winner who swept all three races of the second round of the Chase, was headed to the win at Martinsville until he was intentionally wrecked by Matt Kenseth and Keselowski nearly won last week at Texas but was chased down in the closing laps by Jimmie Johnson.
Logano finished a frustrating third and was denied a chance to race Earnhardt and Harvick on a restart because of the rain.
“You don’t know if there’s another restart if we’re going to win,” Logano said. “You just want a chance. It’s no one’s fault. It’s not NASCAR’s fault. What are they supposed to do when it’s pouring out?”
Earnhardt had no guilt in celebrating the win. He was eliminated from the Chase after the second round when a caution prevented him from racing Logano to the checkered flag at Talladega.
“A lot of guys would love to see this race continue and have an opportunity to race to the Chase,” said Earnhardt. “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.”
Earnhardt ended Harvick’s streak of four consecutive wins at Phoenix, but the champion was the class of the field. He led 143 of the 219 laps and had just pitted when a wreck brought out the caution.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Harvick said. “Just caution came out at the wrong time. I feel like I don’t want to be greedy and be disappointed with how it went today when you look at the big picture.
“You always want to win when you have a car like we did today, but I’ll take it again next week.”
Harvick won at Homestead last year to clinch his first career championship. This time he’ll be up against four-time champion Gordon, who will try to win the title in his final race before retirement, and Busch and Truex, who will both be racing for the championship for the first time in their career.
Busch has been a favorite to win the title at various times in his career, but he never made it far enough in the Chase to win a Cup title. It gives Busch the chance for a storybook ending to a season that began with a crash at Daytona that left him with a broken leg and broken foot.
Sidelined until late May, he was given a waiver by NASCAR to compete in the Chase.
“I’m playing with house money, so I’ve got the advantage,” he said.