By AMANDA VINCENT
After rain delayed the start of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 by over six-and-a-half hours, rain returned to the track to shorten the race scheduled for 312 laps to a 219-lap distance. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was up front when the race was called and, therefore, declared the winner at Phoenix International Raceway, renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway for the day to honor the retiring driver.
“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.”
Kevin Harvick finished second after leading 143 of the 219 laps, and Joey Logano was third. Despite the third-place finish, Logano failed to make the Championship Four for next weekend’s season and Chase for the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, scheduled for Nov. 22.
“You can’t help the weather,” Logano said. “I guess it wasn’t in the cards tonight, but I’m still super-proud of what this Pennzoil team has done all year. We’ve had super-fast race cars, and we really produced on the race track, executed our plan. Once again, this is a high-pressure race for these guys and to see us drive to the front and have good pit stops all night, but it just didn’t work out. Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done this year.”
Joining Martinsville (Va.) Speedway race winner Jeff Gordon in the Championship Four at Homestead will be Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Busch finished fourth and Truex 14th.
Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch started the race on the front row, and when the green flag waved, Busch looked to take the lead, but NASCAR determined that he jumped the start. As a result, Busch’s laps up front were credited as laps led by Johnson and Busch served a penalty that put him in the back of the race field.
Johnson led until a lap 40 competition caution before joining Busch in the back because of a pit-road speeding penalty. But by the halfway point of the scheduled 312-lap distance, both drivers were back inside the top-10.
Harvick got off pit road first during the competition caution after being one of five drivers to take only two tires. He drove away while Earnhardt and Logano traded the second position back-and-forth. By the time the field began cycling through green-flag stops on lap 118, Harvick had driven out to a five-second lead.
Logano cut into that lead, decreasing it to two seconds by pitting for tires two laps before Harvick.
The race field began cycling through green-flag stops again on lap 194, but after about half the field had pitted, the yellow flag waved for the second and final time on lap 195 for a wreck involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase.
Earnhardt, Harvick, Logano and Kyle Busch had already pitted under green but managed to remain on the lead lap. When others pitted under yellow, they cycled up to the top-four. They finished in the same order, as the race never restarted.
“We made great adjustments overnight and got that little bit of balance that we were looking for from practice, and just the way that the caution fell, I didn’t get all my distance back on the race track under green and Dale was able to beat us out,” Harvick said. “But, hey, you lose some and you win some like that. And sometimes you’re on the right side of it and sometimes you’re on the wrong side of it. Today, we were on the wrong side of it, but in the big picture, we’re racing for a championship next week. So I’m just really proud of everybody on our team.”
Jimmie Johnson got off pit road first during the caution to line up and, ultimately, finish fifth. Gordon finished sixth, Kurt Busch was seventh, Denny Hamlin eighth, Brad Keselowski ninth, and Aric Almirola rounded out the top-10.
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