By David Morgan, Associate Editor
It never rains in the desert, but when NASCAR comes to town, it’s almost a guarantee.
For several hours prior to the 2015 running of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, the rains fell, pushing the race that was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon into the night. While the 312-mile event finally got underway under the lights, the field would be racing the rain just as much as each other throughout the evening.
Early on, it looked as if Kevin Harvick would be making yet another visit to victory lane in Phoenix as he would lead 143 laps, but a crash during the middle of green flag pit stops at lap 195 would change the outcome of the race.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. timed his pit stop perfectly when the caution fell and found himself as the race leader ahead of Harvick as the cars circled under caution. While the extensive cleanup from the lap 195 wreck continued, the rain returned to the area and this time it arrived for good, forcing NASCAR to call the race at lap 219, 93 laps from the scheduled distance of the race, making Earnhardt the victor.
“We had an idea that the rain was in the area, but all the circumstances that played out at the end of the race are just kind of luck I think,” said Earnhardt. “I want to give Greg (Ives, crew chief) a lot of credit and the guys. They gave us a good enough car to come here and qualify well. I think the reason why we won this race is because of the way we qualified to give ourselves a position to be up front all night. When something quirky like this happens we were able to capitalize.
“It’s a rain-shortened win, but my guys are very proud of it because of how the car ran all weekend and we put ourselves in this position. A lot of guys would love to see this race continue and have an opportunity to race to the Chase. If I had four or six inches at Talladega, we would be going there to Homestead to race for a championship too. It works out for some and some it doesn’t.
“We will take this win. It has been a long year and we put a lot of effort into it and we are starting to see some things turn around and work for us like we want. We were fast all weekend, so real proud of this.”
The win marked the third win of the season for Earnhardt and the final one of his career. Had it not been for his shortfall at Talladega in the elimination race for the Round of 12, the series’ Most Popular Driver would have been heading into the season finale with a shot at the title.
Earnhardt’s win also gave Hendrick Motorsports a clean sweep of the penultimate round of the Playoffs after Jeff Gordon’s win at Martinsville and Jimmie Johnson’s win at Texas the week prior.
Following Earnhardt and Harvick to the finish line would be Joey Logano, who needed to win to advance in the postseason, along with Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Aric Almirola.
“It’s kind of bittersweet, Harvick said of his runner-up finish. “The car just really performed well today and we were able to lead a lot of laps and just really proud of the guys for the decisions that they made overnight to get that last little bit out of the car today and how it performed was really good.
“The caution came out at the wrong time, and we didn’t get to make up the ground on the racetrack under green, where Dale was pitted and the way that they came out of the pits just didn’t time out well. But still proud of our group, and sometimes you win some of those things, sometimes you don’t, but in the end the big picture is what it’s all about.”
Playoff contenders made up six of the top-10 finishing positions, while Carl Edwards and Martin Truex, Jr. would find themselves finishing in 12th and 14th, respectively.
With their Phoenix finishes, Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Truex joined Gordon as the four drivers that advanced to fight for the championship at Homestead.
On the flip side, the four drivers eliminated were the same four drivers that came into the day on the outside looking in (Edwards, Kurt Busch, Keselowski, and Logano).