Observations• There were no post-race fights, confrontations or even bad language following Sunday’s race at Phoenix. There was still plenty of drama – and it was all on the track. NASCAR has gotten plenty of attention for incidents that have taken after the race or away from the track this season, but it should be applauded for kind of race fans saw on Sunday. Even in a race in which the winner led 264 of 312 laps, there was an abundance of intensity and intrigue as fans waited to see who won the race and who the four drivers would be that will compete for the championship next weekend at Homestead, Fla. NASCAR’s new Chase format is forcing drivers into making decisions on the track that might not otherwise try, or prefer not to. And that can only be a good thing for fans.
• Ryan Newman advances to the championship race with no wins this season. Big deal. Consistency was always going to be able to get drivers the opportunity to race for a championship but it won’t do him any good next weekend. To win the championship at Homestead, Newman will have to finish better than three drivers he didn’t finish better than on Sunday. Is it plausible? Yes. Is it likely? No way.
• The championship is playing out as many do in professional sports. There will be two contenders who were expected – Harvick and Joey Logano; one who peaked at the right time – Denny Hamlin; and a long-shot – Newman.
How the remaining Chase drivers fared:
1 . Denny Hamlin (4,112 points)
Hamlin’s race took a turn for the bad early when the valve stem on his right-rear tire was knocked out during the race’s first pit stop. Twice, he fell a lap down in the race but returned to the lead lap thanks to a caution on Lap 207.
“Probably our saving grace was we definitely didn't have that strong of a car today but we had a strong car on restarts, and that kind of allowed us to be aggressive and pick up a handful of spots,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin is the first driver to make the Chase without competing in all of the season’s races. He received an excemption after missing the March race at Fontana, Calif., with an eye injury.
2. Joey Logano (-1)
Unfortunately for Logano, his race almost mirrored that of Hamlin. Logano was penalized by NASCAR when he left his pit stall with his fuel can still attached. He fell a lap down at one point but returned to the lead lap during a caution on Lap 202.
Definitely a drama‑filled day for sure, not what we wanted,” Logano said. “We were hoping for just a normal, uneventful day to just get a nice top 10 is all we needed, which we ended up doing, but it was definitely eventful along the way.
“I’m proud of my team, proud of everyone to get us to this point, and we'll have some fun next week, go for a championship.”
3. Ryan Newman (-9)
In a new Chase system that emphasized, Newman is the exception. He has yet to win a race this season, but his consistency has allowed him to advance through the first two rounds of the Chase.
It appeared his ride was over but he nudged Kyle Larson out of the way for position on the final lap, which gave him enough points to overtake Jeff Gordon for a championship berth.
“I did what I had to do and tried to keep it as clean as I possibly could,” he said. “I don’t like racing that way, but there's a lot on the line here, and we'll keep digging.”
4. Kevin Harvick (-10)
Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team had the fastest car all season and it showed up when Harvick needed it most. He led a race-high 264 of 312 laps on his way to the win Sunday, which he needed to advance to the championship race.
“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said.
“That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix. This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”
Chase drivers eliminated on Sunday:
5. Jeff Gordon; 6. Matt Kenseth; 7. Brad Keselowski; 8. Carl Edwards.
Chase drivers already eliminated:
9. Kyle Busch; 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.; 11. A.J. Allmendinger; 12. Greg Biffle; 13. Jimmie Johnson; 14. Kurt Busch; 15. Kasey Kahne; 16. Aric Almirola.
Five key moments
1. Denny Hamlin, who led the first 24 laps, was forced to pit twice on Lap 33 when the valve stem was knocked out of his right-rear tire. He restarted in 35th place.
2. Kevin Harvick passed Joey Logano on Lap 44 to take the lead for the first time. He led a race high 264 of 312 laps.
3. Logano was penalized by NASCAR for leaving his pit stall with his fuel can during a pit stop on Lap 125. He restated in 26th place.
4. By a caution on Lap 207, both Hamlin and Logano had made their way back into contention to advance to the championship race of the Chase.
5. A track-record 12th caution on Lap 298 bunched the field a final time but Harvick drove away from Jeff Gordon and wrapped up the win.