NASCAR & Auto Racing

Gearing up for a championship run

Should Jeff Gordon fail to exit a legendary NASCAR Sprint Cup career perched atop a fifth championship pedestal, the driver who denies him should be prepared to be the villain.

Kevin Harvick? Wouldn’t bother the reigning champion a tiny bit. He doesn’t shy from controversy. Indeed, he’s in contention because of a late-race accident and caution flag at Talladega, Alabama. He triggered the crash.

Kyle Busch? Before this year, his occasional fits of anger and barbed comments made him an easy target of criticism. But a crash at Daytona that sidelined him for 11 races with severe leg and foot injuries and the remarkable rebound for four victories since have softened a sometimes prickly nature.

Martin Truex Jr.? No way. Not only are he and his single-car Furniture Row team consummate underdogs, but Truex, a two-time Xfinity series champion with three Cup victories in 368 starts, has persevered with long-time partner Sherry Pollex through her fierce battle against ovarian cancer.

Harvick has his championship. Kurt Busch’s younger brother has long been regarded as the most talented Sprint Cup series regular without a championship. But Truex lofting a championship trophy Sunday would be unimaginably heartwarming.

Gordon, who as much as any other driver brought NASCAR racing into the mainstream, surely will be the sentimental favorite to write a fitting epilogue to a brilliant career in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

But any who believe Gordon’s legend needs no further embellishment may understandably and enthusiastically shout their support for the unfailingly affable Truex and Pollex.

CHALLENGER ROUND

Race 1 | MyAFibRisk 400 at Joliet, Ill. | Sept. 20

Winner: Denny Hamlin, racing less than two weeks after he tore knee ligaments playing basketball, rebounded from a spin on only the second lap to claim his second victory this year. He gambled by staying on track with worn tires while most rivals pitted on a late-race caution, then darted past Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon on the restart with five laps remaining. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards, having pitted for fresh tires, advanced to second place but couldn’t overtake Hamlin.

Pivotal moment: Contact between Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick on a restart damaged Harvick’s left rear tire. Four laps later, the tire blew and sent Harvick slamming into the wall. He finished 42nd. Johnson had been forced to the track apron by a push from Joey Logano and contacted Harvick as he tried to move back onto the racing surface.

In jeopardy: Harvick wound up 22 points off the cut line from 16 to 12 drivers with two races to make that up. Also: Clint Bowyer (minus-6 points), Paul Menard (minus-4) and Jamie McMurray (minus-3). Gordon ranked a shaky 12th.

He said: “I saw those guys coming on the apron, I stood my ground and [Johnson] just slammed into my door like I wasn’t even there.” Harvick, on the contact that ruined his race.

Race 2 | Sylvania 300 at Loudon, N.H. | Sept. 27

Winner: Matt Kenseth sailed past a snake-bit Kevin Harvick for his fifth 2015 victory when Harvick’s gamble on fuel backfired. Harvick, who led 216 of the 300 laps, ran out while in front with  2 1/2 laps left and retreated to a 21st-place finish that left him with a win-or-be-eliminated challenge at Dover. Kenseth and Hamlin had pitted for fuel and tires with 61 laps remaining while Harvick and most others stayed on track to preserve running positions.

Pivotal moment: Kyle Busch won four times this year despite missing 11 races with severe leg injuries sustained in a crash at Daytona. But he blew a tire and crashed at Loudon, leaving him momentarily on the outside looking in for advancement into the Contender Round.

In jeopardy: Dale Earnhardt Jr. approached the finale in the initial three-race elimination round a single point ahead of Kyle Busch and Menard tied for 13th. Also: Clint Bowyer (minus-39 points), Harvick (minus-23).

He said: “Honestly, [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] told me [Harvick] was going to be close on fuel and was probably going to run out. But I didn’t 100 percent believe him.” Kenseth, on his relief when he passed the slowing Harvick.

Race 3 | AAA 400 at Dover, Del. | Oct. 4

Winner: Kevin Harvick had to win at Phoenix last November to advance to the 2014 championship final four at Homestead. He won. As it turned out, he had to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 to win the championship. He did. Thus, it was hardly surprising that he led 355 of 400 laps and scored a dominating victory at Dover. Kyle Busch, also under intense make-or-break pressure, finished second and moved into the Contender Round.

Pivotal moment: Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a 10-time winner on one of his favorite tracks, appeared in position to advance until a mechanical failure involving a rear axle seal sent him to the garage for 36 laps and to the Chase exit with a 41st-place finish.

Eliminated: Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third in the AAA 400, directly in front of Jamie McMurray. They ended up in a tie for 12th in the cut to 12, and Earnhardt’s higher finish in the three-race round (third) broke the tie. Exiting the title chase with McMurray were Johnson, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.

He said: “We were on the verge of being down and out. … I told people before this, this is a lot of fun to be in these situations and succeed. It just makes them extra special.” Kevin Harvick, on surmounting obstacles.

CONTENDER ROUND

Race 4 | Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, N.C. | Oct. 11

Winner: Joey Logano reveled in as convincing a victory as he has enjoyed. Of his 12th career triumph and fourth in 2015, he said, “It’s special to have a perfect day in racing.” He led 227 of the 334 laps and, in a true confidence-builder, kept runner-up Kevin Harvick comfortably in arrears. Logano became the first qualifier for the Eliminator Round.

Pivotal moment: Kyle Busch faked a move toward pit road under a caution flag with 140 laps to go, then veered back into line. Kyle Larson, directly behind and reacting to Busch’s feint, made a last-moment decision to pit. They collided, and damage to Busch’s car saddled him with 21st place.

In jeopardy: Early contact with Carl Edwards damaged Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet and indirectly resulted in repeated wall-bangers and a 29th-place finish. That left him 19 points below the cut one race into the three-race round along with Matt Kenseth (minus-32 points), Kyle Busch (minus-10), Ryan Newman (minus-6).

He said: “Everything kind of snowballed. … Today obviously was a bad day. We had a really fast Camry, but one thing led to another, to another, to another, and I made some mistakes.” Kenseth, whose misfortunes started with a cut tire in a door-banger with Newman.

Race 5 | Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas City, Kansas | Oct. 18

Winner: Joey Logano, challenging Matt Kenseth with five laps remaining, became impatient with Kenseth’s legal blocking maneuvers and bumper-tagged Kenseth into a spin. Magnifying the drama and reaction, Kenseth desperately needed the victory while Logano already had his Charlotte-victory ticket into the Eliminator round. Kenseth had to pit to replace flattened tires and wound up 14th. Logano outdueled Denny Hamlin over the final two laps in a green-white-checkered restart after Kenseth’s spin.

Pivotal moment: None matched the impact of the Logano-Kenseth skirmish. Kenseth had led 153 of the 269 laps, but Logano had the faster car in his late-race pursuit.

In jeopardy: A loose wheel caused a green-flag pit stop for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and dropped him a lap behind the leaders. He never recovered and finished 21st, leaving him needing a victory at Talladega, Ala., the next week to reach the Eliminator round.

He said: “He [Logano] is lying when he says he didn’t do it on purpose. He lifted the tires off the ground and offset it to the left. … I always raced him with a ton of respect. I actually have been one of his biggest fans. I’m not anymore.” Matt Kenseth, on Logano’s aggressiveness.

Race 6 | CampingWorld.com 500 at Talladega, Ala. | Oct. 25

Winner: Joey Logano’s margin of victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr. will remain a mystery because the lone two-lap, green-white-checkered attempt to finish under race conditions ended less than one-quarter of a lap after it began. Scoring loops on the track showed Logano with an edge in side-by-side dueling when the yellow flag waved. The field was frozen at that point because of an 11-car tangle triggered when Kevin Harvick “hip-checked” Trevor Bayne’s car into the wall.

Pivotal moment: Rivals openly reasoned that Harvick, whose engine had soured, intentionally bumped Bayne to cause the melee and freeze Harvick’s finishing position at 15. It’s almost certain he would otherwise have fallen back to last driver on the lead lap, 27th, and suffered elimination.

Eliminated: Both Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin got caught up in Harvick’s wreck and missed the Chase cut from 12 drivers to eight. Also erased from title contention: Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman.

He said: “I’m fine with [the green-white-checkered rule]. … I can live with the result as long as everyone else is going by the same rules. … NASCAR makes the calls. I have 100 percent faith in the choices that they make.” Earnhardt Jr., probably the winner had the race finished without the caution.

ELIMINATOR ROUND

Race 7 | Goody’s Headache 500 at Martinsville, Va. | Nov. 1

Winner: Jeff Gordon’s 93-victory, four-championship career could produce a storybook ending. His most emotional victory since his last title season in 2001 set the stage for a grand finale. Gordon pounced on an opportunity presented by ongoing enmity between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth to become a Homestead finalist. Kenseth, in clear retaliation for Logano knocking him out of a potential Kansas victory, crashed Logano when his rival appeared bound for a fourth consecutive victory.

Pivotal moment: An earlier crash with Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch sent Kenseth’s Toyota to the garage for repairs. He returned to the .526-mile oval laps down and slammed into Logano as Logano put him yet another lap down. “Just a complete coward move,” Logano fumed. NASCAR suspended Kenseth two races.

In jeopardy: Logano’s 37th-place finish left him 28 points below the Eliminator Round cutoff. Kurt Busch (minus-26) and Keselowski (minus-24) also faced a monumental challenge.

He said: “If you told me, ‘You’re going to make it past second round and be in the third round. What do you think your [finalist] chances are?’ I’d have said, ‘Well, Martinsville’s in there.’ There’s always a chance at Martinsville.” Gordon, whose victory was his ninth on the short track.

Race 8 | AAA Texas 500 at Fort Worth, Texas | Nov. 8

Winner: Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, out of contention for a seventh since the cut to 12 Contender Round drivers, deprived Brad Keselowski of the victory he desperately needed to sustain hopes for a second championship. Keselowski, dominating throughout, led 312 of the 334 laps in his bid for the victory that would have advanced him to the Homestead finale. But in closing laps, Johnson mounted a challenge, stalked his rival and then rocketed past for his 75th career victory and sixth at Texas.

Pivotal moment: After his three-race winning streak and the calamitous bid to extend it to four, Logano’s Ford exploded a tire on only the 10th lap, provoking a spin and a trip to the garage to repair shattered bodywork. He finished 40th.

In jeopardy: Keselowski remained 24 points below the cut to the four championship finalists and, like Penske Racing teammate Logano, in need of a win at Phoenix to advance. In a fluid situation, Carl Edwards trailed Martin Truex Jr. by seven points for the fourth championship berth.

He said: “I just kept pressure on [Keselowski]. I could see that [his car] was really tight, and that was the first I had seen him that vulnerable all day.” Johnson, on his victorious, late-race charge.

Race 9 | Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Avondale, Ariz. | Nov. 15

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who but for an untimely caution might have won at Talladega, Ala., and stayed alive in the Chase, proved this time to be the beneficiary of a yellow flag. On pit road when Joey Gase and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed, Earnhardt emerged with the lead over Kevin Harvick, who had led 143 of 193 laps. At that point, rain returned and ended the race after 219 of 312 scheduled laps. Earnhardt Jr. relished his 26th career victory.

Pivotal moment: Yes, it rains in the desert. The race began after a  6 1/2-hour rain delay and ended prematurely when skies reopened. The same four drivers who started the race in position to advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead did advance.

Eliminated: Points from the Martinsville, Va., and Fort Worth, Texas, races left Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski in desperate need of a victory to advance. They finished third, seventh and ninth. Not good enough. Carl Edwards wound up five points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the final qualifying spot.

He said: “Caution just came out at the wrong time. [But] I don’t want to be greedy and be disappointed with how it went today when you look at the big picture.” Kevin Harvick, who now has a shot at back-to-back championships.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments