Rain Favors Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Desert as Championship Four is Set

Rain in the desert? Of course when NASCAR goes to Phoenix International Raceway, in the middle of the desert, it would rain for seven hours, forcing NASCAR to delay the start of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 from 2:30 pm ET to around 9:00 pm ET.

Unfortunately, when it was all said and done, Mother Nature reared her ugly head, and influenced the end of the race, and ultimately the four drivers who would be competing next weekend for the 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship.

Jeff Gordon already clinched his spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway due to his win at Martinsville Speedway earlier in this round, but the other three spots were up for grabs Sunday in the desert. In the end, nothing changed, as Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. survived and advanced.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended up in victory lane after a strange sequence of events put him in the lead as the second, and final, caution came out for a crash by Joey Gase. Earnhardt Jr. was on pit road under a round of green flag pit stops when the caution happened to come out, and as he was leaving his pit box, he crossed the finish line and was scored the leader.

“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,” Earnhardt Jr.  said to NBCSN after grabbing his third win of the season and third in his career at Phoenix International Raceway in the No. 88 Chevrolet.

Earnhardt Jr. led only 22 laps of the 219 that occurred (none under the green flag), as the final 93 laps were cancelled.  The king of Phoenix, Kevin Harvick, dominated by leading 143 laps, but came up one position short due to the quirky sequence of events.

“Yeah, it’s kind of bittersweet,” Harvick said to NBCSN in the media center after NASCAR called the race. “Just caution came out at the wrong time, and we didn’t get to make up the ground on the race track under green. 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.”

The was It was Harvick’s whopping 12th second-place finish of the season, sending him into his second straight final four in Miami.

Joey Logano, the dominant car of the 2015 playoffs, finished third, short of advancing to the championship round.

“It’s hard to play the race with rain in the area,” Logano said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you just hope there’s another shot. You hope that there’s a restart and if two of them slip up and you’re able to put it three-wide on the bottom, or do something like that — but just didn’t ever have the opportunity there at the end.”

Logano said he and his team will leave with their heads held high heading to Miami, with “one more race to win” waiting for them.

His Team Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, finished ninth, and wasn’t able to get the win he needed due to the rain. 

Carl Edwards also fell victim to the rain. While being interviewed by NBCSN, he heard a roar from the crowd when NASCAR announced that Earnhardt Jr. had won the race and threw his umbrella to the ground in disgust – all he wanted was one more shot to try and advance. Edwards and the No. 19 team finished five points shy of Martin Truex Jr. for the final transfer spot.

Kurt Busch wasn’t as fortunate as his brother, Kyle, on Sunday evening. The No. 41, who I myself picked to win the race, got out to the lead over Jimmie Johnson (who finished fifth and let 44 laps) early, but was penalized due to start violation. NASCAR deemed he beat the No. 48 to the line. Busch acknowledged he made a mistake  b breaking the rule and has to live with that.

But let’s talk about Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team for a second. This team is and has always been labeled as an underdog. Being a single car operation based out of Denver, Colorado, away from the NASCAR hub in Charlotte, North Carolina, they don’t have as many resources and/or personnel as the other teams.

But look at them now.

Considering the events Truex Jr. has been through on and off the track in the past 2-3 years, he is pretty happy.

This weekend’s race had so much hype behind it, and the rain delay only added to that, as well as the pressure on the drivers. It’s a shame that rain had to influence the final four for this year’s NASCAR playoffs, but it is what it is, and we’re moving onto Homestead-Miami Speedway for Ford Championship Weekend.

Be on the lookout for the next episode of the Victory Lane Podcast, where I recap the eliminator round and look ahead to the final race of the season, and my title pick.