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.
Racing, I love you and I hate you. You make me want to scream for joy or vomit.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) November 13, 2016
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.