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Sean Gardner

Lookback: Harvick shines in must-win race, Newman makes aggressive move

Ahead of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — the final race in the Round of 8 — we take a look back on the 2014 race that propelled Kevin Harvick into the Championship 4 with a win, and Ryan Newman into the title mix with a late-race dump-and-run.

Coming Wednesday: A look back at the 2015 race.

The scene

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolled into Phoenix for the Round of 8 elimination race with no drivers having clinched a spot in the Championship 4 the next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Non-playoff drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Martinsville) and Jimmie Johnson (Texas) had won the previous two races in the round.

In the first year of NASCAR’s new multi-round, elimination playoffs format, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were tied atop the series standings by a two-point margin over third-place Ryan Newman, with Jeff Gordon provisionally holding the fourth and final transfer position. Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth each trailed Gordon by point, with Brad Keselowski 17 points back and Kevin Harvick 18 points back.

RELATED: Current playoff standings

That Harvick found himself teetering on playoff elimination was a surprise as he had dominated the regular season and postseason and was considered the championship favorite. He found himself in a sizeable points hole, however, due to a crash in the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville, and entered ISM facing a virtual must-win scenario. Working in Harvick’s favor, ISM presented an ideal track for him to maintain his championship eligibility by winning, as he had won there earlier in the season and three of the past four overall.

Logano and Hamlin seemed like good bets to qualify for the championship finale at Homestead, but still found themselves vulnerable if they had a disastrous result at ISM. The remaining drivers were in more tenuous situations, either needing a win to clinch a berth or misfortune to befall other title contenders.

MORE: Full results from 2014 Phoenix

The action

Conventional wisdom suggested Harvick would be the driver to beat and he wasted little time fulfilling that expectation. After qualifying third he moved into the lead for the first time on Lap 44, then proceeded to lead all but five laps the remainder of the way.

While Harvick dominated to secure one of the four available transfer spots, the battle for the other three slots intensified and was compounded by both Hamlin and Logano encountering various issues.

MORE: Harvick’s winning move last week

A flat tire forced Hamlin to make an unscheduled pit stop early, and on two occasions he would go down a lap. He rallied to finish fifth. Logano was penalized for removing equipment outside of his pit stall, eventually fell a lap behind and narrowly missed being collected in an accident. He too rallied and finished sixth. Both drivers advanced.

The battle for the final position was between Gordon and Newman, with Gordon seemingly set to claim the spot through a second-place finish. But a desperate Newman completed a brazen pass on Kyle Larson on the final lap that saw Newman dive-bomb going into Turn 3 then slide up the track and into Larson, whose car body-slammed the wall. By advancing his position Newman gained one point, the difference he needed to break a tie with Gordon and qualify for the Championship 4.

Ryan Newman is all smiles
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

The winner

Harvick led nearly 85 percent of the laps on the afternoon — including the final 187 — and won by a comfortable 1.6 seconds over Gordon. It was Harvick’s fourth win of the season and third straight at ISM. And considering the circumstances it was as clutch a performance as any in recent NASCAR history.

“Wow, I guess that’s what it feels like to hit a walk-off in extra innings there,” Harvick said. “I could tell that we were probably going to have to win, because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against. I think this says a lot about our team. We had our backs against the wall. We’re in Victory Lane and we get to go on.”

The impact

Harvick, Hamlin, Logano and Newman — none of whom had ever won a premier series title — were the four drivers who advanced to Homestead with their championship aspirations intact. And in a thrilling finale where each of the title contenders ran near the front for much of the race, Harvick prevailed. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver did so with an inspired charge where he was 12th after making his final pit stop to passing Hamlin for the lead with eight laps remaining, then held off Newman on a restart with three laps remaining.