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November 7, 2018

Lookback: Dale Jr.’s final Monster Energy Series win

Dale Jr. celebrates at Phoenix
Sean Gardner
Getty Images

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 2015 race that saw Dale Jr. emerge in the rain and a star-studded Championship 4 field get set.

Previously: 2014 classic

Coming Thursday: A look back at the 2016 race.

The scene

The fall playoff race at ISM Raceway wasn’t lacking for story lines with the previous two Round of 8 races generating plenty of memorable moments and no shortage of controversy.

In what was his final season as a full-time competitor, Jeff Gordon assured himself a spot in the Championship 4 bracket by triumphing at Martinsville Speedway, a win punctuated by the four-time champion getting emotional in Victory Lane. That win came about following a dramatic turn of events that included title contenders Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano becoming ensnared in different run-ins as they vied for the lead, one of which resulted in Matt Kenseth earning a two-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Logano.

Gordon’s win left three spots up for grabs in the Round of 8 elimination race, as non-playoff driver Jimmie Johnson narrowly edged Keselowski to win the week before at Texas Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch (+11 points above the cut line), Kevin Harvick (+10) and Martin Truex Jr. (+7) provisionally held the three transfer positions, with Carl Edwards, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Logano each effectively needing a win at ISM to advance.

RELATED: Full 2015 race results

The action

Harvick was the heavy favorite to win, increasing the odds Edwards, Keselowski, Busch and Logano faced in scoring a victory they required to avoid playoff elimination. And living up to his status, Harvick dominated in leading all but 50 of the first 193 laps.

The consensus that Harvick would win in a romp was knocked askew by a forecast that called for rain at some juncture during the race. With one eye on the track and another on the sky, crew chiefs altered their strategies in the hopes of stealing a victory seemingly otherwise earmarked for Harvick. And that was what transpired.

Dale Jr. celebrates at Phoenix
Christian Petersen | Getty Images

During a sequence of green-flag pit stops, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on pit road when a caution fortuitously fell in his favor allowing him to get service and return to the track without losing a lap. He then inherited the lead when the other lead-lap cars pitted just as rain began to fall. With the precipitation increasing officials had little recourse but to red flag the race. It would never be restarted, and became the first postseason race to not complete the full distance since NASCAR instituted the elimination format prior to the 2014 season.

PHOTOS: Dale Jr. through the years

Joining Gordon in advancing to the Championship 4 were Harvick — who finished second to Earnhardt — Kyle Busch and Truex. Edwards finished 12th, and was the first driver below the cut line, five points behind Truex.

The winner

The victory was Earnhardt’s third of the season and 26th of his career. He announced in the spring of 2017 that he would retire from racing full-time at the end of that season, and though he has come close on multiple occasions, he has not won a NASCAR race since.

The impact

The Championship 4 featured the defending series champion (Harvick), one of the best drivers of his generation (Busch), one of NASCAR’s all-time greats (Gordon) and an underdog driver (Truex) that two years later would storm to the title. It was a stacked field.

The championship came down to Busch vs. Harvick, with the two going toe-to-toe over the final laps at Homestead. Busch prevailed when he passed Keselowski for the lead on a restart with seven laps remaining, then held off a closing Harvick to win the race and the championship.