Road to Homestead rocky for these finalists
November 09, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- For three of the four, there was nothing easy about advancing to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
For the fourth, it was a real Sunday drive.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led three times for 264 laps, earning a perfect driver rating of 150.0 in scoring his fourth win of the season. He is the only driver advancing into the final based on winning one of the three races in the Eliminator Round.
For three others -- Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin -- it was a stress-filled day that saw each battle back from adversity, their chances at advancing to Homestead-Miami Speedway as a Chase finalist changing on nearly every lap. With Harvick dominating, points positions determined their fate.
Joey Logano also was forced to make his way back through the field after going a lap down, his misfortune striking when a gas can became stuck during a pit stop.
"I'm whipped," Newman said as he sat down on the pit-road wall after finishing 11th. "I haven't been that tired after 312 laps around here in a long time. … I didn't want to do what I did at the end, but I did what I had to do. I kept it as clean, to me, as I possibly could."
Newman, needing one position to advance, was trailing Larson and Marcos Ambrose with two laps remaining. In the final turn on the final lap, he dove inside Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and contact sent Larson out of the racing groove, up the track and into the wall.
"He did the same thing to me in a truck race for about $9,000 to win," Newman said. "To me, there's a Sprint Cup championship on the line. I kept it as clean as I could."
Chris Heroy, Larson's crew chief, expressed no ill will toward Newman afterward.
"He's got to do what he's got to do," Heroy said. "It's just racing. … We're here to try to win races. We'd gotten on a different strategy to try to win and it didn't work out. It's just part of racing."
"That's just what you do," said Newman's team owner, Richard Childress. "I didn't know (how it would play out)."
Hamlin, the pole winner, was the first to feel the sting of trouble. After leading the first 24 laps, he fell from third to 37th when a flat tire while pitting under caution sent him back to pit road.
By Lap 75 he was a lap down before a subsequent caution for debris allowed him to get back on the lead lap. Unable to advance through the field, he fell a lap off the pace again just shy of the halfway point of the race, and then gained it back during a caution at Lap 207.
"We definitely didn't have that strong of a car today but we had a strong car on restarts, and that kind of allowed us to be aggressive and pick up a handful of spots; then a caution would come out, we'd pit, get a little bit better tires, then the guys that stayed out would make up a few more spots," Hamlin said of his fifth-place finish. "And next thing you know we ended up finishing in the top five somehow, some way."
"I need a new stomach lining after all that," said crew chief Darian Grubb, who won the 2011 title as crew chief for Tony Stewart. "It's tough -- being in, being out, having just a fluke flat tire when a lug nut got caught in the wheel. I've got the valve stem in my pocket. … Just stuff like that we fought all day long to get back."
Logano, sixth on the day, was penalized during a round of pit stops at Lap 124 when he pulled out of his pit stall with the fuel can still attached to the No. 22 Ford.
He also found it difficult to navigate his way back to the front after restarting the race in 27th. But, similar to Hamlin, the miscue occurred early enough to provide a window of opportunity.
"I don't really know what got us behind but the same deal as last week, you get back there and you're in the danger zone," he said. "The 18 (of Kyle Busch) spun out, (we) went down a lap, got our lap back. We're in (the championship) though, one to go for all the money."
In the meantime, Harvick wheeled his way to his second consecutive win at Phoenix and career win No. 27 in the series.
While it might have been dominant, it was also necessary. Eighth in points entering Sunday's race, Harvick would have not been one of the four drivers advancing to next week's championship without the victory.
"I guess that is what it feel like to hit a walk-off (home run) in extra innings there," he said. "This (car) here has just been bad to the bone. I could tell we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up front of the pack that we were racing against. …
"I think we have been through a lot this year. They put our backs against the wall; we put it in Victory Lane and get to go on."