AVONDALE, Ariz.—Three thoughts on the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, the final elimination race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, in which Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman survived and advanced to the championship round:
1. Kevin “The Closer” Harvick is back
All season long, Harvick’s handle, which predates his arrival at Stewart-Haas racing, has seemed like a poor fit. Yes, he was strong at the beginning and middle of races, leading more miles and laps than his peers, but you’d never really know that from his win total, which was stuck on two through the first four races of the Chase. Since then, though, no one has been able to run down Harvick when the No. 4 team has been on its game. Four weeks ago at Charlotte he zoomed ahead early en route to his first win of the postseason.
This weekend the No. 4 Chevy was once again the class of the garage. No car could seem to keep up with it in practices and it was no different during the race. After narrowly missing pole position and starting third, Harvick charged back to the front and, at one point midway through the race, opened up a lead of more than five seconds. What’s more, the race featured a track-record 12 chances for drivers to catch up with him on restarts, but they never got a bead on him.
That could be because Phoenix is to Harvick what University of Phoenix Stadium has been to the Cardinals of late: a desert roost he rules. Harvick’s victory on Sunday marks his fourth in five starts on this one-miler. The only stat more impressive than that is his driver rating, a perfect score of 150. It was a tour de force that had one of Harvick’s esteemed peers picking him as the man to beat in next week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I like Harvick [to win it all],” Jeff Gordon said, as Chasers Newman, Hamlin and Logano looked on and took mock offense. “Denny won that race last year, so he can be really, really strong there. But Kevin looked good there in the test and, man, they’ve looked strong lately. It seems like they’ve gotten some of the bugs worked out in their team that they had early in the year. I think that if they do that next week, they’re gonna be really tough to beat like they were today.”
Harvick's point total resets along with those of Logano, Hamlin and Newman, meaning the highest finisher among the four at Homestead will take the title.
2. This time, all of the fighting stayed between the lines
Early on, though, those battles couldn’t have seemed more unwinnable for Hamlin and Logano. A day that began with them tied atop the Chase standings nearly ended with both missing the Homestead cut.
Hamlin was the first to find trouble. After starting on the pole and leading the first 24 laps, he blew a valve stem on his right rear tire and sunk to 37th. A resurgent Harvick put him a lap down twice.
On a couple of those back-of-the-pack loops, Hamlin had to contend with Logano, who was sent to the end of the line after dragging a gas can out of his pit stall. To hear the Penske pilot cursing a blue streak on the radio and see him banging a fist on his steering wheel, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was in meltdown mode. Really, Logano was just venting. Once he exhausted that initial frustration, he essentially followed Hamlin back to the front. Both used timely pit stops and cat-quick restarts to rally back into the championship picture.
Hamlin placed fifth, his highest finish of the Chase, while Logano rolled in right behind him in sixth. As comebacks go, these two teams pulled off maybe two of the year’s best, especially Hamlin's No. 11 team, which also has to be considered a favorite going into next week’s race at Homestead. They’re the defending champions there, after all.
“I love Homestead,” Hamlin said. “It's probably one of my best racetracks, and we had a great test there two weeks ago. Now we've just gotta go to work and figure out what we can do to win that race and win the championship.”
3. With Matt Kenseth out of the Chase, Ryan Newman is now the contrarian NASCAR fan’s last hope of seeing a winless driver walk away with year-end title.
And the manner in which he made the cut was typical Newman: a top-10 finish that was all grit. Entering the race, Newman was ranked second in the Chase and needed only a finish of ninth or better to race for a championship, a tall order for a driver who qualified 20th. But when Harvick, the low man on the Chase’s eight-racer totem pole coming into Phoenix, grabbed immediate control of the grid, the standard lowered a bit for Newman. Now, he’d need to only finish 11th or higher to advance.
In the end, Newman would clear that bar, but not easily. On the waning laps of the race, he found himself tangling with non-Chasers Marcos Ambrose and Kyle Larson for top-10 positioning. When there was no getting around Ambrose -- “Those guys were giving nobody any breaks,” Newman said -- Larson became the preferred target. On the last lap, Newman nudged the rookie out into the wall on the last turn to clear a path to the last spot in the four-man Chase grid.
The move, a senior moment to put it most kindly, marked the second time in as many weeks that one driver has made contact with another for his own late gain. And like Brad Keselowski before him, Newman makes no apology for his action. To hear him tell it, he may have even owed Larson for an age-old confrontation they shared in the truck series. “He used me up on multiple restarts and literally just used me up and used me as a wall and a cushion to drive around,” Newman said with a laugh. “We had fun doing it, don’t get me wrong, and today was really no retaliation for that. But to me in my mind, it was the fact that he can’t be too mad after the way he raced me in a truck at Eldora two years ago.”
Apparently, drivers have elephant-sized memories when it comes to grudges. With the potential for still more bad blood to spill onto the track at Homestead, next week’s race could wind up like something out of the Nat King Cole standard -- unforgettable, too.