After Sunday’s great penultimate run at Phoenix International Raceway, one thing emerged a certainty: A first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will be crowned after next week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman will battle it out for the championship. That means all three major manufacturers will also be represented: two cars for Chevrolet and one each for Ford and Toyota.
Unfortunately for them and their fans, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards all fell short and have been eliminated from the one-race, winner-take-all battle at Homestead.
We present the four drivers who will race for the championship next Sunday in south Florida:
Harvick won Sunday’s race to assure he would be in the championship race. The way the final standings broke down, Harvick was essentially in a win-or-else scenario.
If he had not won, Harvick likely would have been eliminated and Gordon would have advanced. Mathematically, Harvick and Gordon tied in points, but Harvick gets the advancement nod by virtue of the win.
It was Harvick’s sixth career win at PIR and his third Cup victory in a row on the mile-long track.
“Wow, I guess that’s what it feels like to hit a walk off (home run) in the extra innings there,” Harvick told ESPN in Victory Lane. “Everyone’s done a great job and we’re going to Homestead.
“I could tell we were probably going to have to win because everyone was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against.
“This place has been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year. And to do that in front of all your almost hometown fans and all the people that have been rooting for me since the mid-90’s is unbelievable.
“I think this says a lot about our team, we’ve been through a lot this year, put our backs against the wall, we put it in victory lane and we get to on.”
Newman made a move that likely would have made the late Dale Earnhardt proud.
Needing to finish one position higher than where he was heading into the final lap of the race, Newman punted Kyle Larson into the wall between Turns 3 and 4, thus earning the one position that was the difference between him making and not making the Chase.
Newman ultimately finished 11th in the race, and becomes the only driver of the four finalists to still have not won a race this season He couldn’t have cut it any closer Sunday.
“I just gave it my all,” Newman said. “They paved it down there, I guess, for a reason. They didn’t make any rules to say we couldn’t use it (the bump and run on Larson).
“It was a great team effort today. We didn’t have the race car, had horrible restarts and didn’t have track position when we needed it. But in the end, we fought back hard and did what we had to as clean as I possibly could.
“I wasn’t proud of (punting Larson), but I’ll do what I’ve got to and I could do this next week. … I think if he was in my position, he probably would have done the same thing.”
Although you probably wouldn’t know it by his sixth-place finish in Sunday’s race, Logano had numerous issues to contend with.
He fell off the lead lap twice, was penalized when the fuel can failed to disengage in time and wound up in an opposing driver’s pit stall, missed at least one attempt at a lucky dog – and yet still managed to advance to the championship round.
“When those situations happen, you have to try and stay calm, which is hard to do because there’s so much on the line,” Logano said. “I wasn’t mad at anybody, I was just frustrated trying to get up through the field.
“This team deserved to be in the final four and proved it throughout this whole Chase and this whole year. I’m glad to be sitting here, going for it and we’re going to have some fun next week.”
Much like Logano, Hamlin had his share of problems as well in the race, but somehow he and his No. 11 team found a way to overcome them.
Hamlin was the pole-sitter and led the first 24 laps before things started going south. He also fell off the lead lap twice, but still was able to rally back and finish fifth, punching his ticket to the championship round.
“What a crazy day,” Hamlin said. “You just think about what all went to be and that it wasn’t meant to be. We just had to keep fighting. This team just continued to battle and now we’re in it.
“This is a good week for us to go relax and get ready for a championship weekend at Homestead-Miami.”
Hamlin is an immediate favorite going to Homestead, as he has two wins there, including last year’s season finale.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Hamlin said. “Our (recent) test went real, real well down there.”
At the same time, there will be no gimme’s, and Hamlin is the first to know that.
“It’s going to be hard against the 31 (Newman), 4 (Harvick) and 22 (Logano),” he said. “I can tell you there’s no give-up. We just kept battling and battling back. I’m proud of our team and this is redemption and hopefully we’re able to capitalize next week.”
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