For those not in NASCAR’s Championship 4, there’s always next year

PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 11: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Ford, leads the field to turn one after taking the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway on November 11, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

It ended up to be those drivers who most predicted would be inside the Championship 4 at Homestead.  NASCAR’s so called Big 3: Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch who won 8 races apiece and Martin Truex Jr. who won 4 races this season. Joining them will be Joey Logano who won two races this season including Martinsville in the final round which locked him into Homestead.

Despite being the favorites, the Big 3 were far from being locked into Homestead for much of  Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Harvick had even lost his guaranteed spot after winning Texas and having the win taken away for title purposes in post-race inspection.

Sunday the final spots dwindled as the race progressed.  Harvick started from the pole and seemed to be the car to beat, but a flat tire on lap 66 forced him to pit and sent him a lap down. Suddenly his Championship 4 hopes seemed on the ropes and opened the door for those below the cut line.

Chase Elliott suddenly took center stage. He was running second when Harvick ran into his tire issue.  Elliott took the lead and won Stage 1.

The day ended early for Joey Logano not long after the start of Stage 2. On lap 95, Logano lost a left rear tire and crashed coming out of turn 1, his race was over.

“It just kind of came out of nowhere,” Logano said.  “We may have run something over, I don’t know.  I went down on the flat a couple laps earlier to make a pass and I don’t know if it hit a little bit hard, maybe it knocked the fender into it, who knows what happened there, but she just went out. “

Already locked into the Championship 4 for Homestead with a win, Logano had no pressure.

“I still feel like we’ve got a great shot at winning this championship when we get to Miami,” he added.  This doesn’t affect anything.”

The news wasn’t as good for playoff contender Clint Bowyer. Needing nothing short of a win, Bowyer had rebounded to seventh when he too lost a tire on lap 134. The damage was too extensive and his race, as well as his title hopes were over.

“I’m proud of our season, bummed for our day,” Bowyer said. “It’s always fun to come out here to Phoenix.  It’s a hell of a crowd today, appreciate everybody coming out.  Unfortunately, we were a caution.  You never want to be a caution.”

Kurt Busch came into Phoenix below the cutoff to advance.  He led a total of 52 laps and seemed to be the car to beat; but a mistake during pit stops for the Bowyer incident started his downfall.

NASCAR ruled he had passed the pace car entering pit road and sent him a lap down.  He was the fastest car on the track at one point and had worked his way to second. But on a restart on lap 268 with 44 to go, Busch was looking for the lead in a four-wide battle after gaining positions on the track by staying out while many of the leaders stayed out. Denny Hamlin was just below Busch and got loose exiting turn 2. Busch was shoved into the wall, and out of the race at the Playoffs.

“I thought we had a good shot of maintaining the lead and I just got cleaned out,” Busch said.  “I flat out got cleaned out.  I thought it was the right decision on staying out.”

Busch’s Ford slid down the track and into Elliott.  Elliott who ran near the front most of the day sustained heavy damage to his Chevy. After leading 16 laps, Elliott had to settle for 23rd, three laps down.

“I feel like we had an opportunity today and didn’t make the most of it,” Elliott who won Stage 1 after Harvick’s untimely flat tire while leading said. “We still finished fifth in the points last year, so it would be a good goal to try to shoot for next week.”

It was left to Aric Almirola. If Almirola could win, it would knock Harvick out of the Championship 4.  He had worked his way to second on the final restart with 12 laps to go; the Stewart-Haas Racing driver got loose exiting turn 2 which led to a three-wide battle.  Brad Keselowski on fresher tires was able to get by as did Kyle Larson in the final laps.

Almirola was left with a fourth place and out of the Championship 4.

“Right now, all I can think about is being inside of Kyle down there in the 1 and 2 and just not being able to get the power down to get up beside him,” Almirola said.  “It’s bittersweet.  It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win, and we didn’t win.”

Kyle Busch won the race, but he had already clinched his spot at Homestead on points on lap 267, Truex clinched a few laps later.  Without a competitive car- he didn’t score points in Stage 1- all Truex had to do to have a shot at defending his title was avoid trouble.  He did just that finishing a quiet 14th.

“We didn’t want to do anything crazy there at the end, we knew what we had to do and we accomplished the mission,” Truex said.

Harvick wasn’t assured of spot until the checkered flag. His Stewart-Haas teammate Aric Almirola charged forward in the closing laps and was in a position to win and knock Harvick out of the final 4.  Almirola faded in the final laps and finished 4th.

“We got ourselves back in contention there,” Harvick said. “We’re going in the right direction and wound up just finding a spot at the end to just survive there and get to the finish.”

When the checkered flag did fall, it left the Championship 4 that had been predicted by many.  And 4 others left out and perhaps looking forward to next year.

The attention will now turn to the Homestead race and four drivers who will race for it all next Sunday.  Three have won titles before; Kevin Harvick who won the title in 2014: Kyle Busch who had raced in the final four times winning the Cup in 2015, and Martin Truex Jr. who has made three title finals and won the Cup last season.  Logano also had three final race appearances, but the title has eluded him.

Greg Engle