AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kevin Harvick dominated a race he had to win to advance to the final round of NASCAR’s playoffs, while Jeff Gordon was knocked out when Ryan Newman completed a last-lap pass.
Harvick led 264 laps at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday to earn an automatic spot next week in the four-man Chase field in the finale at Homestead. He has the Phoenix fall race three years in a row, also won at the track in March and has a record six victories on the mile oval.
Now he takes Stewart-Haas Racing into the championship race next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the four championship contenders will all be seeking their first Sprint Cup title. Harvick came into Sunday ranked eighth in the eight-driver Chase field.
“Wow, I guess that’s what it feels like to hit a walkoff in the extra innings,” Harvick said.
Gordon finished second, but lost his bid for a fifth Sprint Cup championship when Newman knocked Kyle Larson into the wall on the final lap to finish 11th — and one point ahead of Gordon.
Denny Hamlin, the points leader after finishing fifth, and Joey Logano also advanced. The title will be decided by finishing order among the final four at Homestead.
Failing to advance with Gordon were Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
Logano finished third, Keselowski was fourth and Edwards 15th.
Newman’s move on Larson in the final turn made for a stunning shakeup in the points. Winless on the season, his first with Richard Childress Racing, he was aggressive with his pass of Larson to knock Gordon out of the finale.
“I didn’t take him out,” Newman said. “In a day or two, he’ll understand. It’s hard to rationalize that, but I did what I had to do. I don’t like racing that way.”
Gordon, a four-time winner this season and the points leader for most of the year, was denied a chance to race for his fifth title.
“I’m disappointed, I thought if we came out of here second, even if it was to Kevin or Brad, I thought we’d still make it in,” Gordon said. “That’s pretty disappointing to do all of that and it just makes last week that much more disappointing. I’m going to be thinking about that one for a while.”
Gordon was in position to win at Texas last week until a late caution forced the field into a restart that went bad when Keselowski tried to wedge his car into a small hole and ended up making contact with Gordon. He got a flat tire, spun and finished 29th to fall from first to fourth in the standings.
Still, he doesn’t blame Newman for doing what he had to do to get into the finale.
“That’s the system we have,” Gordon said.
It was a devastating blow for Keselowski, who leads the series this season with six wins and won a race in each of the first two rounds of the Chase. But he fell into a hole because of a mechanical problem at Martinsville in the first event of this three-race round that he couldn’t recover from despite strong finishes at Texas and Phoenix.
His mettle was definitely tested, too, as his aggressive driving style angered his competitors and led to two fights in four races. He was fined $50,000 for his post-race behavior at Charlotte last month — actions that caused Kenseth to jump him from behind in the garage — and he and Gordon were both bloodied when the drivers and the teams brawled on pit road after last week’s race at Texas.
“We gave it all we had, it was a strong run, it just wasn’t enough to advance,” Keselowski said. “We did everything but win. We broke down in Martinsville and it was a huge hurdle to overcome and it was probably going to take a win. Fourth wasn’t going to be enough, and we knew that coming in.”
Hamlin, who came to Phoenix tied with Logano for the points lead, won the pole and needed only to finish 11th or better to guarantee himself a spot in the finale.
But a broken valve stem caused his right rear tire to go flat under caution immediately after the first round of pit stops. Hamlin had to pit a second time, went from fourth to 35th on the restart, and sounded panicky as he struggled to regain his lost positions.
“I’m trying, man, I’m trying,” he radioed.
“Ten-4 buddy, you don’t have to get it all back this run,” crew chief Darian Grubb replied.
He went a lap down with 236 laps remaining in the race.
Logano took a hit when he was penalized for pulling out of his pit stall with the fuel can still attached to his car. He went from second to 26thon a restart with 185 laps remaining.
“We’ll recover from this,” crew chief Todd Gordon said.
It put him and Hamlin in the middle of the pack at the same time, and the two waged a furious battle to put themselves in position to be the driver to earn a free pass back onto the lead lap. Hamlin aggressively went three-wide on a restart to pass Logano and take the position, but Logano eventually passed him and was rewarded when the caution came out with 111 laps remaining.
Both drivers battled back from a lap down twice and now cruise into Homestead with a title in reach.
“I’m playing with house money now,” Hamlin said.
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