The Final Word – The championship hopes of four were unable to rise from the ashes at Phoenix

LEADERSHIP…sucks. Usually, when you lead a race, when you are the guy kicking ass and taking names, it is a good thing. Not at Phoenix. It turned out to be steering the leading car was very similar to being the moral compass on the Walking Dead. You just wind up being some zombie’s souffle. Just when a boy became the golden child, the man out front, the driver all alone leading the parade, fate kicked him in the teeth.

Kevin Harvick was the man to start. He had the pole, he took the lead, he beat back all challenges from Chase Elliott. Then, with a couple of laps to go in the opening stage, a tire went down, his lead went out the window, and he was forced to pit. Elliott grabbed the points. Harvick wound up with a bucket of something less tasteful than honey.

Off to the second stage. Elliott lost the front to Kurt Busch. He dominated. He was the man. Joey Logano already had his pass to Homestead, so when his left rear let go and wrecked out, no big deal. However, with about 20 laps left, Clint Bowyer’s own left rear departed to end his day as well as his championship hopes.

It was time to pit, to get some fresh rubber. Harvick stayed out after the caution had put him back on the lead lap. A win by Busch would have made that fact meaningless, but he decided to gas it coming to the pits and that pushed him past the pace car. A lap penalty was his reward. Once again, Harvick was back in the top four in the battle to advance, along with Logano, Martin Truex Jr. as well as Kyle Busch, who went on to win the stage.

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So, when it came down to the final push, Harvick was just three points ahead of Kurt in points banked, but sitting a lap and more than 20 positions ahead of him on the track. Of course, if Elliott could win it, it would not matter what either of those two boys did. As for Kyle and Truex, they just had to avoid disaster to run against Logano for the championship next week.

It was all Kyle Busch. For a while. Then he gave up the lead to Elliott. Just in time, as it turned out. When Elliott pitted under green, he was a little too speedy. So much for the lead, but on an interesting track, both the action and the intrigue just went up a notch. Who was going to be in and who was going to be left on the outside? All the contenders were back on the lead lap, all had a shot coming down to the final 50 laps.

Some of the mystery went away late in the run. Kurt Busch was not leading, but he was close. When Denny Hamlin got loose and went up the track, he got very close to Busch. Too close. They made contact, Busch caught the fence, then turned down to take out Elliott. Three on the outside were now done, with only one challenger remaining.

Aric Almirola needed to win. He needed to catch Kyle Busch. He looked good for a short time. Too short. There were just not enough ponies under his hood. When they hit the line, Kyle won his 51st career Cup race, with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson between him and Almirola. Harvick finished fifth, Truex was 14th.

Despite the storylines, the quartet for Homestead remained as expected. Logano and the Big Three go in, with the best of the four in Florida in that one race taking home the championship. Next week, leadership will mean everything.

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