AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) This season has played out as a battle between Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports. All the while, Kevin Harvick was holding his own with NASCAR’s heavyweights.
With his season on the line, it was Harvick who stepped up to earn the right to race for his first Sprint Cup title. He’ll do it with a Stewart-Haas Racing team that was in sync from the first time Harvick drove his new No. 4 Chevrolet in December and showed almost every week he could hang with the Hendrick and Penske drivers.
Harvick’s dominating victory Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway in a must-win race earned him one of the four berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He’ll race Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman next Sunday for the championship, and the highest finishing driver will claim the title.
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It will be the first Cup championship for all four of the drivers.
”You can pretty much sum this whole year up as `Holy cow,”’ said Harvick. ”It’s definitely the best position that, myself personally, I’ve ever been in.”
The final pairing does not include any of the Hendrick drivers, and only one of the two Team Penske cars.
Jeff Gordon was the only Hendrick driver who had a shot Sunday because its three other drivers were eliminated in earlier rounds of NASCAR’s inaugural elimination system. Gordon’s bid for a fifth title ended, though, when Newman used an aggressive move on Kyle Larson coming out of the final turn to pick up a position and knock Gordon out of the final four.
Gordon, who had four wins this season and led the points for most of the year, finished second and missed the finale by one point.
”I’m disappointed, I thought if we came out of here second, even if it was to Kevin or Brad, I thought we’d still make it in,” Gordon said. ”That’s pretty disappointing to do all of that and it just makes last week that much more disappointing. I’m going to be thinking about that one for a while.”
And Penske has only Logano racing for the title after Brad Keselowski, a six-time winner this season, was eliminated on Sunday. He finished fourth but needed to win to advance.
”We gave it all we had, it was a strong run, it just wasn’t enough to advance,” Keselowski said. ”We did everything but win. We broke down in Martinsville and it was a huge hurdle to overcome and it was probably going to take a win. Fourth wasn’t going to be enough, and we knew that coming in.”
Also eliminated Sunday were Matt Kenseth, who finished third, and Carl Edwards, who was 15th.
A look at the other championship contenders:
HAMLIN: Few thought any of the Joe Gibbs Racing entries were strong enough to advance deep into the Chase, but Hamlin has always viewed these playoffs as a new lease on his season.
He had to work hard, though, to earn his spot in the finale after a tire problem nearly ruined his year. Hamlin came to Phoenix tied for the points lead, won the pole and was running well when a broken valve stem caused his tire to go flat early in the race.
It dropped him from fourth to 35th and he twice had to rally from a lap down to earn his fifth-place finish. This will be his second chance to win a championship – he lost the 2010 title to Jimmie Johnson in the final race – and he loves his chances.
”I feel pretty optimistic,” said Hamlin, a one-time winner this season. ”Love it, love the opportunity. We’re on house money now, so let’s go have fun.”
LOGANO: With five wins this season, he was clearly a championship contender all year as Team Penske appeared to have a double threat with Logano and Keselowski.
Now only Logano will represent them at Homestead, and a win would give Roger Penske both the NASCAR and IndyCar titles in the same season.
But much like Hamlin, Logano had to work for it Sunday after a penalty for leaving pit road with his gas can still attached to the car. He and Hamlin were lumped together at the back of the field, Logano also had to work to get back on the lead lap, and he narrowly escaped disaster when a wreck caused minimum damage to his car.
Logano still managed to finish sixth to earn his spot at Homestead.
”It was definitely a drama-filled day,” Logano said. ”We were hoping for just a normal, uneventful day. I’m proud of my team and proud of everyone who has helped get us to this point and we’re gonna have some fun next week going for a championship.”
NEWMAN: He’s the surprise in this finale, proving that NASCAR’s increased emphasis on winning isn’t all that matters.
Newman, in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, is winless. He has only four top-five finishes all year, has led only 41 laps.
But Newman was consistent when the Chase began and has steadily maintained his grasp on a spot in the finale. His lowest finish in the Chase was 18th, and five consecutive top-10s in the middle stretch moved him closer to Homestead.
Still, Newman had to get aggressive to lock up his spot. Needing one more position to make the Chase, he was aggressive as he raced Kyle Larson coming out of the final turn to pick up that spot and finish 11th.
”I wasn’t proud of what I had to do, but I did it the best way that I possibly could,” he said. ”It played in my favor all the way through. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be a champion, it’s just means the system was made like that. In the end, it is what it is, and we all had an opportunity in Daytona to start our Chase for the championship, and now four of us have a chance this coming weekend.”