NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Phoenix Semifinal Lives Up to the Hype to Set Up a Dramatic Championship 4

Fans upset by an apparent lack of drama through the opening eight races of the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup need to look no further than Phoenix International Raceway to get their fill of chaos and emotion.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series entered the year’s penultimate race amid a relatively quiet Chase, at least by the standards set in the first two seasons under the new playoff-style format.

In fairness, there were a few cases of drama before Sunday. Championship favorites Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. were each lost to surprising blown motors at Talladega Superspeedway. On that same Alabama day, Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon engaged in what was — until Phoenix — the best battle for a cutoff position seen, with Hamlin prevailing courtesy of his finish at Talladega in a tiebreak with Dillon.

Still, entering Sunday there hadn’t been many signature moment to this Chase.

Save for Carl Edwards’ rain-shortened win in Texas, this season’s Chase hadn’t seen much genuine excitement. Pure human emotion and drama were lacking. There hadn’t been any Kenseth-Logano type feuds, no ‘We’re going to Homestead!’ level moments. The biggest upset had come when Dillon lucked his way into the Round of 12 courtesy of an overall implosion from Chip Ganassi Racing’s two teams.

Thankfully, though, the field was set up for success going into this weekend’s semifinal.

As I wrote last Monday, Edwards’ surprise win from the back of the Chase grid set the remaining playoff contenders up for an epic afternoon in the Arizona desert. Four drivers — Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin — found themselves separated by just two points with two potential transfer positions up for grabs. Another driver, Kevin Harvick, was returning to a site that had seen him win six of its last eight races.

Given the blueprint for an afternoon befitting a late season playoff outing, NASCAR’s top tour delivered on all parts.

In need of solid runs, Kenseth, Hamlin, Logano and Busch all ran inside of the top 10 for most of the day, creating up an ever-changing game of “who’s in” as fans and analysts alike monitored the points as they ran.

In an interesting twist, a day planned to gear toward the Chasers also saw the rise of an unexpected storyline – domination from the Showman.

In one of his final races replacing Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Alex Bowman claimed the pole and quickly established himself as a legitimate contender for the win in the No. 88 Chevrolet. At his home track, and in need of a great run to attempt to garner support for a 2017 ride, Bowman led a race-high 194 laps in a dominant performance that elicited equal parts excitement and nervousness from the driver he was replacing.

In the end, it was Bowman and the Chase-eligible drivers that found themselves in the spotlight.

After taking the lead on a late two-tire strategy call, Kenseth found himself driving off from the field in the twilight stages of the event. Bowman slotted in second after driving through the field on fresh rubber, and Busch, Logano and Harvick rounded out the top 5.

As they run, Busch and Logano were effectively in a dead heat at the time, with Logano holding the tiebreak by virtue of the highest finish of the round -a second-place run at Texas.

However, Logano had a problem: Kevin Harvick.

While he didn’t factor into battle for the win like many thought he would, Harvick did find himself in position to alter the Championship 4 in the final stages of Sunday’s race. After working on his No. 4 Chevrolet all day, Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team finally gave the 2014 NSCS champion a strong enough ride to drive into the top 5 at the race’s end.

Harvick’s rise culminated in the final 10 laps, when he reeled in Logano to contend for fourth. The two stars battled for multiple laps, with Harvick looking both low and high for a way around Logano’s No. 22 Ford.

Logano ultimately held the spot, though the position didn’t come without a fair share of stress.

“There was a lot of stress inside the car, believe me. I wasn’t fast on the long run,” Logano said. “I was trying to hold them off. The 18 got by me and the 4 got underneath me a couple times coming there with two to go. I knew it was going to be tight and we were racing really hard there.”

In the end, that spot would come to be even more important than it may have first appeared.

Both Kenseth’s impressive close and Logano’s desperate survival saw a shocking twist on the penultimate circuit of the planned 312-lap distance when Michael McDowell’s No. 95 Chevrolet blew a right-front tire, sending McDowell into the wall and forcing NASCAR to throw a caution and send the race into overtime.

The rest, so they say, is history. Kenseth and Bowman crashed on the ensuing restart, sending Kenseth from in with a win to out of the Chase entirely. Bowman was relegated to fifth on the following restart, leaving Logano and Busch to battle for the win, and Logano ultimately prevailed to earn an impressive victory.

Now the Championship 4 is set.

Johnson. Busch. Edwards. Logano.

A six-time champion on the verge of history. The defending champion looking to repeat his miraculous 2015. One star trying to avenge a heartbreaking 2011 tiebreaker loss, and another trying to avenge a 2015 exit that was largely out of his control.

Regardless of the winner, the Championship 4 is filled with enough storylines to carry NASCAR through the offseason. If Phoenix was any indication, there should also be a fair share of drama, too.

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About Aaron Bearden

Aaron Bearden
A graduate of Ball State, Aaron rejoins Frontstretch for his second season in 2016 following a successful year that included covering seven races and starting the popular "Two-Headed Monster" column in 2015. Now in his third year of covering motorsports, Aaron serves as an Assistant Editor for Frontstretch while also contributing to other popular sites including Speed51 and The Apex. He encourages you to come say hi when you see him at the track.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Actually this race showed several points that make NA$CAR racing so wrong anymore.
    1). Everyone knows that Harvick cannot stand both Logano and Kyle Busch. With this race, however, it became clear who he detests more. He obviously fell in line behind Logano and figured he could cost Kyle Busch a chance to move on in the chase. It didn’t work out the way he wanted but why should a pass for 4th (?) place in the penultimate race mean so much? This is what a shit point system will do but it’s what NA$CAR wants.
    2). During the broadcast, the commentators made comments about non-chasers staying out of the way of the chasers. WTF???? Everyone should be out there about doing the best they absolutely can, no matter who they’re racing. I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if thy’re in the chase or not, I would not make it easy for them.
    3). Before a restart, Kyle Busch comes on the radio and requests that Matt Kenseth, the race leader, take the bottom line and help him to move on. So glad Kenseth refused the request because he wanted to win the race himself. This teammate business sucks.
    4). At one point, Kyle Larson was riding in 20th and a lap down but drove to a third place finish. Yet, if you watched the broadcast, you would not have known that because he didn’t get mentioned at all. Guess if you’re not one of the chasers, you don’t merit any attention even if you would win the race.
    5). Lastly, the potential Alex Bowman story of the race could have been on of the best of the year but, hold on, chasers were running third, fourth and fifth. We have to devote everything to that “battle”. Why show the leader when a chaser is running fifth or so? Also, we have to discuss tie-breakers for 30 laps or so. And, I actually thought I heard one of the talking heads say Logano should let Harvick pass him late in the race so he would have time to get past KyBu. Again, WTF? Why would any real racer let someone, anyone, pass them for a spot so late in the race?
    I’m sure there are more that could be looked into, but this is long enough already. Damn, I hate the chase…………………………………………

    • Avatar

      When I first turned the race on Larson was spinning out. At the end of the race I was wondering if any one noticed him with a chance to win. I watch with the sound muted but I could guess who the voices were talking about, trying to put a spin on a great “race” with 8 drivers.

      “Guess if you’re not one of the chasers, you don’t merit any attention even if you would win the race.”
      You’re catching on. Imagine who gets the attention in Miami!

      • Avatar

        Yeah, another awesome P8 run by Ryan Blaney in the #21 Wood Brothers Racing & Motorcraft and Quick Lane Racing Ford. Of which, highlights one of many flaws of the “chase” format gimmick. This was another phenomenal run & outstanding effort by this rookie driver & veteran crew, yet this top 10 effort, their 8th of the season, was NEVER mentioned, not ONCE by the NBC sensationalists all day, smh. Nascar’s immense media battalion & corporate media in general is failing the sport by serving up extraneous helpings of poster-children & has-been sensationalism, whist being woefully oblivious to supreme efforts by the likes of a young charger Ryan Blaney & WBR, Cup’s most tenured team.

    • Avatar

      not to redefine your true comments, but NASCAR has taken stock car racing and turned it into a reality show about stock car racing. It is the equivalent of “Cutthroat Kitchen”, using bogus cautions, wave arounds, and double file restarts, to produce watching excitement. Maybe next year, during the final caution clock they can tape off 1/2 of driver’s helmet visor prior to the final sprint to the finish….I’m out and done for 2016.

    • Avatar

      And it starts at the Daytona 500. The winner’s in the chase with the next 15. Just the characters change for the rest of the year.

  2. Avatar

    I got so tired of hearing nothing but the ‘points as if now’ that I turned off the race. I could care less, since I only acknowledge a ‘full season’ champ…which is now only 26 races. Congrats Kevin Harvick!

    • Avatar

      Yup! You & me both. KH btw, two in a row the way it is presently shaped up.
      Unofficial Cup Driver Points (non-Chase straight points count, after Phoenix, race 35 of 36, as posted on Jayski every week)
      01) #4-Kevin Harvick(EC), — 1120
      02) #22-Joey Logano(C1), — 1095, -25
      03) #2-Brad Keselowski(EC), 1083, -37
      What if “classic” points format Champions (no “chase”).
      ’04 Jeff Gordon (not KuBu)
      ’05 Tony Stewart (either way)
      ’06 Jimmie Johnson (either way)
      ’07 Jeff Gordon (not JJ)
      ’08 Carl Edwards (not JJ)
      ’09 Jimmie Johnson (either way)
      ’10 Kevin Har-ick (not JJ)
      ’11 Carl Edwards (not TS)
      ’12 Brad Keselowski (either way)
      ’13 Jimmie Johnson (either way)
      ’14 Jeff Gordon (not Harvick)
      ’15 Kevin Harvick (not KyBu)
      ’16 Kevin Harvick (leading “classic” points standings (+25 over Logano) with Miami outstanding & Harvick eliminated from “chase” contention).
      Most interesting, this would put JG at SEVEN, not four. JJ at THREE, not six. And CE would have TWO, not nada. As is, CE is the new Mark Martin…

      • Avatar

        Very interesting list of champions using the season long points. Of course drivers would drive differently under the 2 formats, but I don’t this list would have too many changes. Gordon being a 7 time champ seems more realistic than the media fawning all over JJ’s “historic” 7th championship in a one race crap shoot. Even Harvick would have just as many championships as JJ. And I’m sure we will hear the words “best ever” shouted from the rooftops should he win it. Would they still think that if he only had 3? And given he didn’t even have to try the last 2 races, you will never convince me that winning in the Chase is somehow equal to a season long champion. Sorry, I just can’t do it.

        But then again, this whole article was lost on me when he mentioned Nascar and epic in the same sentence. Sorry, not my definition of epic, either. Exciting ending but hardly an epic race. Completely ignoring the leader (and a good story in Alex Bowman, maybe even a better story than this crappy Chase) to focus on the points for the last 50 laps makes made me sick to my stomach. At least they didn’t blame him for taking out Kenseth.