Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet, benefitted from some smart pit stop strategy and the return of rain to win an abbreviated Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday night.
Rain delayed the race start by six hours and 10 minutes and another downpour on lap 219 brought the competition to a premature end.
“A lot of guys would have liked this race to continue,” said Earnhardt Jr, who claimed his third career Sprint Cup victory in the Valley of the Sun. “If I had four or six inches more at Talladega Superspeedway (where he finished a close second to Joey Logano) we’d be at Homestead-Miami Speedway (competing for the championship).”
No driver – not even Earnhardt – seemed to be able to match Kevin Harvick on pace. Harvick took the lead in the early stages and gradually pulled away from all pursuers, leading a race-high 143 laps. He was trying for a record fifth-consecutive win at PIR and a record eight wins overall, but slipped behind during a pit stop shuffle just before the final rain shower brought the race to an end.
Eight drivers entered the race with a chance to make it to the final round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship to be held next Sunday. The four drivers that advanced to the Championship Round were Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Pepsi Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick (who finished second Sunday), driver of the No. 4 Ditech Chevrolet, Kyle Busch (fourth), driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota, and Martin Truex Jr. (14th), driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet.
“Tonight was tough and we didn’t have the greatest car, but we hung on all night long,” said Truex, who finished 14th. “I really got nervous there when we got caught under that last caution, but all in all it worked out and Homestead is going to be a really good race track for us.”
At the start of the race, Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, was black flagged for jumping the drop of the green flag and had to serve a pass-through penalty on pit road.
Kurt Busch, who finished seventh, as well as Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Pennzoil Platinum Ford, Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford and finished ninth and Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 19 Stanley Toyota and finished 12th, were eliminated from The Chase after the race.
Logano finished third, Kyle Busch finished fourth, and pole winner Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Patriotic Chevrolet was set a new track record in time trials, finished fifth.