From a rain delayed and a rain-shortened race in the Valley of the Sun, here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 28th annual Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Surprising: Two rookie crew chiefs had to make the tough calls that saw one of their drivers win the race and the other make the Chase.
“We kind of knew that once past halfway we’d see a couple more cautions,” Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s rookie crew chief Greg Ives said after scoring the victory. “So that rain started to pop up again and we’re on two long green-flag runs there, and we just saw it coming. We didn’t know if it was going to happen before we pitted or after, but we knew at some point it was going to happen, and we elected to kind of pit, be one of the first few to pit.”
“I think somebody got us one lap early, and our pit selection at pit stall 33 there allowed us to, when the caution came out, finish our pit stop and cross the start-finish line and allowed us to be scored the leader.”
Cole Pearn, Martin Truex Jr.’s rookie crew chief, called his driver to pit road when an unfortunate caution came out shortly thereafter. Truex was able to finish 14th, which was just good enough to secure his spot in the Championship four.
“I was real concerned until I looked at the scoreboard, and I was like, okay, we’re going to be fine. We’re going to be back on the lead lap if we get going here, and really the only guy we were racing was one car ahead of us, so we felt okay about it,” Truex said. “It’s definitely obviously an exciting day for everybody at Furniture Row Racing and me and just super proud of my team for the season we’ve been able to put together.”
Not Surprising: It was lucky 13 for Chevrolet as they secured their 13th consecutive Manufacturer’s Championship thanks to Dale Junior’s win.
“Winning the Manufacturers’ Championship is one of the goals we set at the beginning of every season,” Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports said. “This award is the result of great teamwork by the owners, drivers, crew chiefs, crews and technical partners. Special thanks to the Chevrolet powertrain team, along with the engine shops at Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt-Childress Racing for delivering the right combination of power, fuel economy, and reliability throughout the entire season.”
“Congratulations to everyone who has made this special achievement possible for Chevrolet.”
Surprising: The Sunoco Rookie of the Year race is surprisingly close with just one race remaining. Brett Moffitt currently has 196 points while Matt DiBenedetto sits at 192 points in the rookie battle.
DiBenedetto was the highest finishing rookie at Phoenix, finishing 28th while Moffitt finished 36th.
Not Surprising: Joey Logano was not the only driver who was hoping to see a restart before the rains came to end the race.
“I think it would have been pretty interesting to see what Joey did on that restart, I will say that,” four-time champion and 2015 championship contender Jeff Gordon said. “But I didn’t want to get caught up in whatever was going to happen.”
“I was going to do whatever I had to do try to win the race if I had a chance to restart,” Logano said after being bumped out of the battle for the Sprint Cup. “I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.”
Surprising: Even after finishing runner-up at a track where he has so often dominated, Kevin Harvick was still trying to figure out whether he was on the right side or the wrong side.
“We made great adjustments overnight and got that little bit of balance that we were looking for from practice. “Just the way that the caution fell, I didn’t get all my distance back on the racetrack under green and Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) was able to beat us out,” Harvick said. “But hey, you lose some and you win some like that.”
“Sometimes you’re on the right side of it, and sometimes you’re on the wrong side of it. Today we were on the wrong side of it, but in the big picture we’re on the right side because we’re racing for a championship next week.”
“So, I’m just really proud of everybody on our team.”
Not Surprising: Roush Fenway Racing had another bad day at the track in Phoenix. Greg Biffle was the highest RFR driver, finishing 25th. Both Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. struggled as well, with Bayne suffering a pit road speeding penalty to finish 34th and Stenhouse involved in an incident with Joey Gase, limping home to a 41st place run.
“That was disappointing,” Stenhouse said after the race. “We had a decent run here earlier in the spring and I think we could have had a decent finish. We will put this behind us and head to Homestead for the final race of the year. We’ve struggled this year, but my guys have never given up.”
Surprising: The Busch brothers were prime examples of making little mistakes, however, the end result was far from similar.
Kurt Busch made a little mistake, jumping the initial start, for which he was penalized and had to serve a pass-through penalty. Busch recovered to finish seventh, but it was not enough to advance him to the final four.
“I don’t even think it was a penalty,” Kurt Busch said after the race. “It’s not even a call in my mind.”
“We had a great season. We won two races, sat on three poles,” Busch continued. “We did everything possible to put polish on a season like that and get out there with elbow grease and work hard at it. There is some tarnish that is sitting there, polish and polish and that is all I kept doing this whole year.”
Brother Kyle Busch also made a little mistake, but his ended up being not so costly. Busch pitted too close to the wall and lost several positions, however, bounced back to finish fourth and advance to the final four.
“I had a little mishap on pit road, just overshot my marks a little bit, being a little bit slick and got my guys too close to the wall, but past that we had a really good race car,” Kyle Busch said. “The M&Ms Camry was fast. I felt like we had a good top-three, top-four race car and long runs seemed to be our friends and we got some of those tonight, so couldn’t be more pleased to finish where we did and be more pleased to go to Homestead.
Not Surprising: With his Chase hopes dashed, Brad Keselowski now has his hopes set on a high five.
“It was a long day for everybody and to have it end like that wasn’t surprising. We kept adjusting on it, but it’s a short race and who knows? Maybe that last run we would have had something, but that’s not the way it played out,” the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford said. “The highest we can get is fifth in points now, so I’d like to pull that off and take advantage of that opportunity when we get to Homestead next week.”
The NASCAR season will now finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway with four surprisingly distinct storylines. Two of the contenders have already been champions, one Kevin Harvick looking to go back to back and one Jeff Gordon looking to close out his career with his fifth championship.
The other two drivers in the Sprint Cup hunt could write the surprising storylines of being first-time champs, with Kyle Busch hoping to play the role of comeback kid and Martin Truex Jr. as the little engine that could.
The 17th Annual Ford EcoBoost 400 will run on Sunday, November 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in Homestead, Florida. And in less than a week, the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will be crowned.