Once Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead at Phoenix, no one was going to catch him. Not a single driver even challenged him. Yet, there was still one vehicle that even the race winner could not pass. The pace car.
While Junior was in the pits for a green flag stop, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase collided on the track. Earnhardt rolled out first among those who had pitted, and when the rest of the field came in for servicing, Junior eventually circulated around to the front. More than twenty laps went by under caution, and before they could return to racing, the rains that had plagued the day returned. They went to a red flag, and soon the event was in the books, shortened by 90 laps. It marked Earnhardt’s third win of the season, albeit one segment too late to keep him in contention for the title.
That title will go to one of four drivers. Kevin Harvick dominated the event, leading 143 laps, but lost it that final pit stop to finish second, yet he advances. Jeff Gordon, who was sixth on the day, already had a free pass after his Martinsville win. Kyle Busch was fourth, sending him through to Homestead a contender. Martin Truex Jr. was back in 14th but had enough in the bank to cash in for a title run.
Joey Logano needed to win, and he was behind Harvick much of the way. However, third place would not cut it on Sunday. Kurt Busch jumped the start, got penalized, and though he was seventh in the end, it proved to be too little. Ninth was not good enough to advance Brad Keselowski while Carl Edwards was close, but he needed to finish seven spots up on Truex and wound up just a couple ahead.
So, we know who the main characters in next weekend’s play shall be. In the end, we will be blessed with either a five-time champion as he ends his career, a two-time defending champion, a very talented driver ending a very trying campaign with his first, or a single-car team concluding a Cinderella season. I will be satisfied no matter the outcome.
Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth returns after his two race exile. I wonder if Logano will again think it a smart move to bump him out of the way? I guess that all depends on how smart that driver is.
The 2015 season concludes on Sunday at the track near Miami.