Kevin Harvick celebrates in Gatorade Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway after winning the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500.

Kevin Harvick dominated Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, leading 264 of the 312 laps in his No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet on the way to Gatorade Victory Lane to conclude Phoenix International Raceway’s 50th anniversary season. The win clinched a place for Harvick in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Round next Sunday in Miami.

NASCAR changed its championship philosophy to emphasize winning in 2014 and no one can be happier about that than Harvick. Entering the race in eighth place among the eight remaining Chase-eligible drivers, he needed to win to advance; and as it turned out, even a second-place finish in the race would not have been enough to earn him a spot in NASCAR’s final four.

A sellout crowd watched as Harvick survived a dozen restarts after a track-record 12 caution periods to claim his sixth Sprint Cup Series victory in Phoenix. Harvick became the first driver in PIR history to sweep both Cup races in a season twice (having previously turned the trick in 2006) and equaled Jimmie Johnson’s record of three consecutive wins in the Arizona desert.

“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody (in contention) was running up in the front of the pack and then we were racing again. That was our goal coming in here and that’s pretty much our goal every time we come out to Phoenix,” Harvick said in Victory Lane. “This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year. To do that in front of all your ‘almost’ hometown fans and all of these people who have been rooting for me since the mid-1990s is pretty unbelievable. I think this says a lot about our team. We’ve been through a lot this year. We put our backs against the wall; and we put it in Victory Lane and now we get to go on.” 

None of the eight contenders had won the two immediately preceding races, so at least three positions that advanced to the finale would be based on points. With Harvick seemingly in command, the seven other championship hopefuls battled hard for position throughout the race. Pole winner Denny Hamlin, who lost a lap when he stopped with a cut right rear tire on Lap 34, fought tenaciously to climb the standings. He got back on the lead lap on Lap 205 and battled to get up to fifth, clinching one spot. Joey Logano, who began tied with Hamlin, also had a tire issue and lost a lap, but finished a solid sixth to claim the third spot.

The final spot came down to a battle between Ryan Newman and four-time champ Jeff Gordon. Newman, who entered the race 10 points ahead of Gordon struggled with a tail-happy car in the middle stages and appeared to fall from contention as Gordon gambled and declined a final pit stop during the final caution period on Lap 290 and moved up to second. He took the runner-up spot 22 laps later and looked likely to claim the last “golden ticket.”

Newman had other ideas. Fighting his ill-handling machine, he dropped from ninth to 13th between Laps 304 and 307, falling a point behind Gordon. But as the field ended the 311th lap, Newman gave a little nudge to Sunoco Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson, who lost grip in Turn 4 and sideswiped the wall. Newman swept past to grab 11th and held the spot over the final lap to finish a point ahead of Gordon.

Extremes of emotions overcame the two drivers. For a drained Newman, the knowledge that he will have an opportunity to race for a championship outweighed any questions about how he earned his spot in the finale.

“I’m whipped. I haven’t been that tired after 312 laps in a long time,” Newman said. “I’m sure Kyle Larson didn’t like what I did and I didn’t want to do it at the end, but I did what I had to do. I kept it as clean as I possibly could. I guess we are even. He did the same thing to me in the truck race for about $9,000. To me it’s just breaking up change. I kept it as clean as I could.”

For Gordon, a second-place run was overshadowed by the disappointment of dashed championship hopes.

“It’s so disappointing to have two second-place finishes in the Chase, and to know what we were staring at last week (being bumped out of second and cutting a tire to finish 29th in the closing laps) makes last week even tougher to handle,” Gordon said. “We did everything we could and we didn’t score enough points to advance to next week. Now we just put our heads down to go race next week and try really hard to win that race and see what we can do next year. I think we are more deserving and worked harder to be at Homestead and get that championship for this No. 24 team, but some things are out of our control.”  

Harvick, Hamlin, Logano and Newman now head to the finale with one common goal - outrace the other three and earn the title of 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion. For Phoenix International Raceway, its 50th anniversary season ended the same way its first began – with a dominant victory by a title-contending driver.

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