Weather can certainly have its way in influencing motorsports and this was true at Phoenix International Raceway.
That’s right, even a racetrack in the middle of the desert is not safe from the woes brought on by a steady downpour.
Following a nearly seven-hour delay for rain, the penultimate race of the season finally went green under the lights with huge stakes. Jeff Gordon, the only driver guaranteed a chance at the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, felt secure while seven other drivers battled it out to determine the remaining three positions and at least three of them were in must-win situations.
Joey Logano could not advance without winning, after suffering poor finishes the last two weeks. Kurt Busch, realistically, needed a win to advance. Logano’s Team Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, could have advanced with some bad luck from his competitors, but needed to win as well. With nine wins among the three drivers, the absence of any of these three drivers was already going to be a big deal. Add Carl Edwards to the list of the four drivers on the outside looking in and it looked as if the competition was stacked.
Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were the four drivers more or less sitting pretty, either needing to win or simply finish ahead of the bottom four to make it in. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s also easier to maintain a position than to try and play catch-up.
Clearly, there was a lot on the line in this race. So as the drivers sat there and built up energy through the course of the afternoon and early evening, the start of the race couldn’t have come soon enough. Finally, they had the opportunity to control their own destiny.
Only the weather had other plans for this championship. Other than the lap 40 competition caution, there was only one caution in the race. Unfortunately, this turned out to be final nail in the coffin. During the entire event, everyone was watching the radar and knew the chance of more showers existed. It was just difficult to tell to what extent and if it would be enough to wipe out the remaining laps of the race.
So when Joey Gase spun in turn 3, bringing out the caution on lap 197, there was a heightened sense of urgency that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. There was lots of oil on the track from Gase’s wreck and further damage from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., resulting in a lengthy clean-up on the track. With that said, the clean-up certainly did seem to take longer than what an otherwise single-car accident should have taken and the track remained under yellow despite the fact that the radar was getting greener and greener.
Several times, NASCAR threw the one-to-go signal, indicating the cars would go back green after just one more lap under caution. It never happened. The skies opened up, the cars were brought down pit road and never fired again. The top-four drivers in points were still the top four when the race was called, which left some conflicting emotions on both ends of the Chase standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was awarded the victory after benefiting from the positioning of a scoring loop during a pit stop when the caution flew.
While drivers waited out the call from NASCAR, there were clearly two different agendas. The top four (plus Earnhardt) were talking about how wet the racetrack was and how there was no way they were getting going. The bottom four – while not optimistic that the race would go back green – urged NASCAR to wait it out and to go back green once the cell passed in order to make the final determination for the championship fair for everyone.
Obviously that never happened. Edwards found out that NASCAR called the race while doing an interview with NBC’s Kelli Stavast, and walked away visibly frustrated after finding out.
Logano, though still able to smile through the interview, was clearly dejected.
“You can’t help the weather,” said Logano post-race. “I guess it wasn’t in the cards tonight, but I’m still super proud of what this Pennzoil team has done all year. We’ve had super-fast racecars and we really produced on the racetrack, executed our plan. Once again, this is a high-pressure race for these guys and to see us drive to the front and have good pit stops all night, but it just didn’t work out. Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done this year. We’ve still got one more race to win this year. Our heads are still high and it’s been a great season. I don’t have much to say bad about anything. I just want another shot at it and when you’re this close to seeing the lead you want just one more restart. I was hoping they got that wreck cleaned up fast enough to just try to get one more shot at it, but congratulations to Junior and his team. It’s cool for them, but I wish I had another restart.”
Keselowski never even had any hope of NASCAR restarting the race, saying, “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.”
Kurt Busch was frustrated after an early-race penalty (“early” meaning a penalty as a result of the initial start of the race), feeling like he never truly had a chance to rebound with the race being called so early.
Meanwhile, the top four were just keen and peachy about the race being called.
When asked if they would have wanted NASCAR to restart the race, Gordon, Busch and Harvick all rather emphatically said no.
“I think it would have been pretty interesting to see what Joey did on that restart, I will say that,” added Gordon. “But I didn’t want to get caught up in whatever was going to happen.”
That’s not to say that Harvick – who led 143 of the 219 laps – was happy with finishing second.
“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,” Harvick said. “I think it’s definitely been a Chase that’s been a little bit up and down for us, but the guys have battled through, and we’ve survived a lot of situations to be in contention for next week. You always want to win when you have a car like we did today, but I’ll take it again next week.”
And then there’s Earnhardt. Despite the fact that yet another non-Chaser won for the second week in a row (and a clean sweep of the Round of 8 for Hendrick Motorsports), Earnhardt didn’t let the fact that he won a rain-shortened race take away from his elation at winning another race.
“You like to win ‘em at the checkered flag,” said Earnhardt on a very wet pit road post-race. “A win’s a win though, and you put it in the record book. My team guys are very proud of this because they gave me a great car to get a good qualifying effort in. We’ve qualified so poorly all year and the reason why we won tonight is because of how we qualified this weekend. This is something that they’re gonna enjoy. I’m happy. A win is a win. It is a rain-shortened race and I know there’s some guys in the field that would love to see this win get going again and get an opportunity to try and race into the last round. But, myself, if I’d had four or six inches at Talladega, I’d be going to Homestead racing for a championship too. It works out for some and for some it doesn’t.”
Earnhardt lost by mere inches to Logano on a green-white-checkered attempt at Talladega in a finish that was determined by camera angles after the final caution flag waved.
Whether or not NASCAR’s decision to call the race was fair or not really comes down to who you ask and where they were in the championship fight. Those who were on the outside looking in wanted another chance, and the top four were happy to let the heavens open up. Fans would have loved to see the race continue, but it’s hard to argue against NASCAR’s call considering how heavily it was raining and how long the delay had already lasted. Had the stakes not been so high, NASCAR would have made the same call.
If there is one complaint that seems justified, it is the length of that final clean-up for the wreck from Gase. Had the clean-up been quicker, there might have been another restart, and we might be talking about a completely different driver lineup for Homestead. That, more than anything, is where fans feel cheated.
Regardless, the points as they run graphic NBC puts up didn’t change very much during the race and it looked as though the four going into Phoenix with points to the good were going to end that way, barring some desperate move from someone like Logano or Busch who certainly had fast racecars.
All the same, it’s pretty obvious that Phoenix as a whole was dealt a bad hand with the weather and there really isn’t anything that can be done about that. Yes, there have been instances were NASCAR ran the race into the wee hours of the night earlier this season, but that’s really not ideal and it would have been prolonging the misery of what had already been a cold, rainy, wet day.
No one likes to see a race end that way. But you win some, you lose some, and the final four in the championship deserve to be there based on their performance this season. It’s just too bad that they didn’t have to fight a little harder for it one last time at Phoenix.