After a relatively quiet opening six races, you could finally feel it in the air at Texas Motor Speedway.
No, I’m not talking about moisture.
Drama. Intensity. Desperation. All were present in NASCAR’s return to No Limits, Texas, even in a race that was ran a full six hours later than intended.
The drama began early when Team Penske’s Joey Logano surged ahead of pole sitter Austin Dillon when the race finally went green, five laps after beginning under yellow as the cars dried the track. Entering just outside of the Chase bubble, Logano was one of four drivers in need of a solid run at worst and a win at best to help their playoff odds heading to Phoenix International Raceway.
After taking the early lead, Logano went on to dominate the first half of the scheduled 500-mile event. But behind him, a couple other Chase outsiders began to put themselves in position to contend for a victory, too.
After struggling at Martinsville Speedway, Kevin Harvick qualified in the top 5 and surged as high as second in one early stint of the the race before slipping into the back half of the top 10. However, while Harvick slowly slipped out of contention, Round of 8 bottom-dweller Carl Edwards methodically rose through the field to firmly establish himself as a potential winner.
After leading 178 of the first 188 laps, Logano’s car eventually faltered over a green-flag run to allow the rest of the field a shot at the victory, an opportunity of which Edwards’ No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team took full advantage.
After running inside of the top 5 for the majority of the race, Edwards’ team gave the veteran a sub-12-second pit stop to elevate the Missouri native into the race lead on lap 258. From there, the 2011 championship runner-up took care of business to claim his fourth win at Texas and clinch himself a spot in the Championship 4 for the first time since the newest Chase format was implemented in 2014.
In an interesting twist of fate, the victory came a full 41 laps short of the scheduled 334-lap distance due to rain.
Just last season Edwards saw himself fall just short of advancing to Homestead due to his position at Phoenix when rain shortened the penultimate race of the year. One year later, it was the same surprise from Mother Nature that put Edwards into the championship hunt for the first time in five seasons, even if it came without a backflip.
“That was bad and this is good,” Edwards said. “Just like anything, you have to take what happens in racing and in life and take it and have fun with it and we did that tonight. Whatever happened was going to have to be OK – but this is great.”
With his victory, Edwards joins Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson as locks to compete for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, unlike Johnson, Edwards’ win came from last on the Chase grid entering Texas. Because of his position in points, the victory has shaken the Chase up in a significant way, leading to what is essentially a dead heat between four drivers for the final two playoff spots.
After dominating much of the race, Logano fell just short of claiming a victory at Texas in a similar manner to teammate Brad Keselowski‘s heartbreaking Texas loss in 2015. But Logano still has a realistic chance to advance on points. He finds himself a lone point ahead of the cutoff in a tie for third on the Chase grid leaving the Lone Star State.
While he has a chance, Logano will have to deal with the sting of letting a potential victory slip away for at least one week.
“When you are that close to winning and you lead the most laps, second stinks,” Logano said. “That is our goal every week, to win, and anything short of that is a failure. I feel like we were so close to that today but ultimately, like you said, we did gain some points. We are in right now and we were out going into this race. We did the best we can as far as leading laps and getting those two bonus points with most laps lead as well but we didn’t get the win part. That would have been nice.”
The most interesting story to come from Edwards win can be found with his JGR teammates. After working together to varying degrees at both Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville, JGR seemed destined to put as many as three drivers into the Championship 4 even after Johnson’s Martinsville triumph.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth seemed destined to be those three drivers after a group of top 5s at Martinsville, even if they came with a hint of disdain from Busch on pit lane after the race.
However, courtesy of Edwards’ surprise win and a strong run from Logano, the three teammates now find themselves competing for what could be a lone playoff spot on points.
Busch leads the way from the group, tied with Logano for third on the Chase grid. But just a single point separates the two drivers from Kenseth, and only one more point separates Kenseth from Hamlin. Essentially, four drivers will enter Phoenix in what’s more or less a dead heat for what appears to be two spots in the Championship 4 on the line.
Then there’s Harvick.
Both he and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch entered the Round of 8 with runs that could as the described as duds at Martinsville. Poor performances for both drivers again at Texas — including a run-in with Austin Dillon for the 2014 champion — have the two former champs heading to Phoenix down 18 and 34 points, respectively.
The teammates both find themselves in a must-win situation at Phoenix. However, while the elder Busch brother has an average chance at a win, for Harvick, a win is expected.
Harvick — or El Toro, as wife Delana Harvick and his fans have referred to the 16-year veteran through the Chase — has been the best driver at Phoenix by a noticeable margin over the last handful of years. He has finished no worse than second at the track since his move to SHR in 2014, and has already walked out of the facility with a victory in a must-win situation once in the fall 2014 event.
Due to Harvick’s incredible track record at the Arizona facility, the storylines throughout the week will include him as a seeming lock to overcome a third-consecutive bad round of the Chase with a victory. If that’s the case, then the above points battle will be contested for a lone playoff spot.
It’s not like Phoenix needs this level of drama to put on a good race, March’s photo finish between Harvick and Edwards proved that.
However, in a Chase that’s been relatively tame thus far at least by the standard set in the past two seasons, the close points battle and must-win situation for the track’s best driver set NASCAR up for what should be an intriguing semifinal for the season.