NASCAR Chase Week 9: Phoenix Racing Power Rankings
PHOENIX—Strike up the hair metal band and cue the stage smoke. The final countdown is here. This Sunday at 3 p.m. EST (ESPN), the last of the Chase elimination races goes down here—on the low-banked, one-mile oval set against the picturesque Estrella Mountains in Arizona's race-mad exurb of Avondale. Eight Chasers will enter, but only four will leave with a chance to race for the Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami on November 16. What’s more, only 18 points separate the first-place driver from the eighth. If you thought things got heated last week, these higher stakes could send tensions quickly boiling over again, and well before the race is even through. Whoever prevails will truly have earned the right of way.
You knew the day was coming. The shock is that it took until now for Waltrip to be eliminated from Dancing With the Stars. Waltrip is no hoofer, after all. He’s more of a huffer and puffer. But after surviving for eight weeks on the strength of his earnest efforts, his charisma and, crucially, the at-home vote of NASCAR Nation, Waltrip saw his improbable run on the hardwood come to an end last Monday. While his swan song wasn’t as freighted with emotion as the series finale of M*A*S*H, it was no clinical affair. One of the judges who sacked him, Carrie Ann Inaba, said she was proud of him. His dance partner, Emma Slater, said the two-time Daytona 500 winner “touched me in a way that I’ll be a better person for the rest of my life.” Waltrip pretty much gave Slater credit for doing the same. So he didn’t ever have a prayer of capturing the mirror ball trophy. (Monday’s stiff foxtrot attempt to Phil Collins’ You’ll Be In My Heart sealed his fate.) So what? There’s no doubt that he won over more than his share of critics with his cornball-yet-cool uncle act. I’d say he’ll be missed but you’ll see him again soon around the track, where he has a much easier time settling into a groove.
After a brave inside overtake of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the halfway point of last weekend’s US Grand Prix, Hamilton not only surged toward his 10th victory of the season—which is about as many times as he’s won in the last three years combined—he also overtook the legendary Nigel Mansell as Britain’s most successful Formula 1 pilot. Hamilton’s Texas-sized triumph also provided a direct injection of optimism to a globe-trotting sport that rolled into the States sputtering amid the financial woes of two teams (Caterham and Marussia) and the possible boycott of more. Of course the boycott didn’t happen, but not because F1’s cardinal problem—the steep cost of doing business—is any closer to being solved. But as long money ain’t a thing for Mercedes, Hamilton and Rosberg will start at the top of the grid again in this Sunday’s Brazil Grand Prix and continue their battle for first place there and in the point standings.
Lost amid last Sunday’s in frantic ending in Fort Worth, and the fracas that followed, was the fact that Larson rallied from a 17th-place start to a seventh-place finish. For those who are not keeping score at home, that means Larson has run with the leaders in exactly half of his 34 starts in 2014—not bad for a rookie. Expect him to be door-to-door with them again this week in Phoenix. In the March race, his first ever start here and sixth overall in Cup, Larson qualified eighth but finished 20th—a result that seems disappointing until the loop data is consulted. Among the many specialty stats for the Phoenix track is one for the fastest drivers late in a run, which ranks them according to their speed in the last quarter of the laps they take following a pit stop. Larson, with a velocity of 124.835 mph, is less than two-tenths of a second behind that of chart leader Jimmie Johnson, who has four Phoenix victories under his belt. Or put another way, the difference is experience. With a bit more time behind the wheel, Larson—who still has yet to toast his first Cup victory—will surely catch up to his veteran rivals.
A poor handling car nearly undid Edwards, who fell a lap behind the Texas leaders last week for the third time in four races—the worst rate of all the Chase-eligible cars. But bringing up the rear didn’t turn out so bad for Roush-Fenway’s lame duck title challenger. For one thing, it allowed him to pace a lap during one pit cycle and pick up a crucial bonus point. For another, it kept him out of harm’s way when all heck and bits of Jeff Gordon’s Chevy broke loose toward the end—a turn of luck that helped Edwards to his third top-10 finish of the Chase. Now he’s just one point outside of the final four cut for the chance to race for the championship at Homestead. To make the grade, he could do what he’s done throughout the playoffs and let luck continue to be his guide. Or he could go to Phoenix and win, something he’s done twice already—most recently in March of last year, when he was in front for more than a third of the contest.
He said his Toyota felt great at the start of the Texas race, and it showed when he jackrabbited from the pole position and paced the field for 53 consecutive laps. But after Johnson passed by and took away the cleanest airstream on the track, Kenseth’s car moved back and forth among positions two through 10 on the grid like a stalk in a wheat field swaying in a breeze. He was very nearly threshed from title contention altogether when a lugnut wedged itself inside his right front wheel and stretched a routine pit road service into an 18-second affair. (Kenseth’s cost? Fourteen positions, from fourth to 18th.) Although the No. 20 Gibbs crew, to its enormous credit, bounced back on the next stop and regained 10 positions, Kenseth’s car was never the same and it struggled to pass ones he had been lapping earlier in the race. A 25th-place result was the best he could manage, which isn’t so bad as it left him one point behind fourth-place driver Gordon and 13 points behind Chase leaders Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. So it’s still not totally out of the question that Kenseth could be racing for the championship at Homestead for the second straight year. He just has to win in Phoenix to seal the deal. There is one big catch, however: Kenseth hasn’t won there in 12 years.
All week leading up to Texas, Harvick had fans fearing for the safety of Matt Kenseth—whose season he casually threatened to snuff out after Kenseth wrecked him the previous week in Martinsville. Turns out, it was really Brad Keselowski who should’ve kept a lookout for the Stewart-Haas pilot. When Harvick shoved him in the back toward Gordon on pit road—after Keselowski had spun Gordon out of a top-five finish while challenging for the lead—it ignited a Texas-sized melee that made Kese’s tussle with Kenseth three-weeks earlier at Charlotte look like two brothers wrestling for the TV remote on their living room floor. It’s enough to make you wonder if the situation would have escalated to the point it did had Harvick not intervened—but, then again, that’s fitting considering how much Harvick’s playoff run has been defined by notions of what-if. Certainly if he hadn’t gotten into it with Kenseth, Harvick wouldn’t be in the fix he’s in now, needing a win to guarantee himself a chance to race for the title at Homestead. But if Keselowski hadn’t gotten into Gordon late in the race, Harvick probably wouldn’t have placed second and now be in position to advance with some help (in the form of his rivals' misfortune). So it cuts both ways. Count on Harvick to keep riding that razor’s edge in Phoenix, where he’s won three times in the last five races.
If Gordon wanted to be mad at anyone last Sunday, it should’ve been Clint Bowyer. Gordon was on his way to winning Fort Worth by a half-second or more when Bowyer got loose into the wall with four laps to go and bunched the grid back together for two green-white-checkered finishes. Instead, Gordon went after Keselowski—a driver he's looked like he’s been dying to get a piece of since Charlotte. There, he watched gleefully on a media center TV monitor as Kenseth ambushed Keselowski between two haulers. Seeing Gordon reach for a fistful of Keselowski’s firesuit in Texas, you’d be forgiven for wondering if that was the same guy who has won four series championships and is supposed to be one of NASCAR’s elder statesmen. But there he was mixing it up on pit road and, later, dropping an s-bomb on live television—and for what? Yes, Keselowski’s attempt to shoot the gap between Gordon and Johnson for the lead was risky, but what was he supposed to do? He’s trying to win a championship. Gordon, who tumbled from a top-3 finish to 29th, should consider himself lucky that NASCAR didn’t fine him or dock him any points. (Instead, crewmembers from his car and Kasey Kahne's No. 5 took the rap.) Gordon is also fortunate to be fourth in the standings now, but only by a point. If he isn’t first this weekend at Phoenix, where he’s won twice but not since 2011, the ex-Rainbow Warrior will have even more reason to get mad and curse.
“The breaks are falling our way, for sure,” Hamlin said in a teleconference with reporters earlier this week. His outing at Texas was his 2014 Chase in miniature: luck of the draw starting position (20th) and a few laps led (three) culminating in a respectable result (a top-10). This is a polite way of saying that Hamlin has endured this long by virtue of being an above average driver. It figures to be much the same story for him at Phoenix—where he scored his first and only win at the track more than two years ago and hasn’t finished higher than 19th in his past two outings there. But what does that matter? This new Chase is as much about winning as it is survival, and when it has come to that part of the game, few pilots have played it better than Hamlin. He only needs to be a top-11 driver at best to move on to the next round, where he will surely be favored. After all, he won the race at Homestead last year despite not being in the Chase. How sweet would it be to repeat and have the triumph count for so much more?
Keselowski’s unintended torpedoing of Gordon’s chances of winning at Texas won’t go down in the books as assistance for Logano, but it should as Logano was able to parlay a 12th-place finish, his worst of the Chase so far, into an equity share of first in the point standings with Hamlin. Now all he has to do is finish 11th at worst to give himself a sure shot of racing for the title at Homestead. That’s hardly asking too much of Logano. In his last two outings there, he’s finished ninth and fourth.
Perhaps it’s time we give Newman’s nickname—"The Rocket Man"—a rethink. Given the way he’s been racing the last couple of weeks, The Chopper Pilot might be a more apt aviation-inspired moniker. All he does is stay above ground and out of the fray. It was no different last week at Texas, where he deftly avoided making contact with a crashing Bowyer en route to a top-15. And while Newman has sat on the pole at Phoenix four times during his career, more than any driver ever, don’t expect him to set any speed records this weekend. Slow and steady is how he’s going to win this Cup. A finish of ninth or better at Phoenix not only keeps Newman on course, but it also makes him the stealthiest threat on the grid going forward.
The popular broadside against Keselowski is that he’s “racing over his head,” but that notion couldn’t be more contradictory. After all, isn’t the whole point of racing to push the limit, to go to places never before thought possible? If anything, Keselowski deserves credit for honoring this ideal, and it was nice to see him get some from NASCAR chairman Brian France. “He did exactly what I would expect any driver that has that much on the line,” France said on SiriusXM Radio. Certainly it would rank among the all time disappointments in sports if Keselowski—a six-race winner—were denied an opportunity to race for the championship at Homestead. And it would be vastly more disappointing if that scenario came to pass because Keselowski wasn’t giving his all. If that makes him desperate, that makes him dangerous, too—more dangerous than any driver remaining in the Chase. (No wonder everyone wants to fight him.) Though he finished third in Texas, Keselowski still needs a win in Phoenix to control his destiny. While he’s never won here, he gets closer to Victory Lane with each recent try. Last year he started on the pole and finished third.
No, he’s no longer in the Chase. (A disastrous second round pretty much spelled his doom.) But that doesn't mean that Johnson isn’t still the man to beat. In a first-place finish last week in Texas, he showed that the feeling that has eluded him inside the No. 48 car might finally be coming back—a frightening prospect to consider given that at least two Hendrick cars have vied for checkered flags in each of the past two weeks. That could be the case again in Phoenix, where Johnson boasts four victories—one fewer than the Hendrick-affiliated Harvick and two more than teammates Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won at Martinsville two weeks ago. Johnson’s quest for seven titles might be on hold for now, but his march toward immortality goes on.