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article imageNASCAR: Final four set for run at the title in Florida

By John Duarte     Nov 16, 2015 in Sports
Avondale - The stage is set. After a long day, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr and Kevin Harvick will engage in a one-race, winner-take-all shootout to become the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
The cars sat parked on pit road waiting out the rain that had plagued Phoenix International Raceway most of the day and delayed the start of the race for some seven hours when NASCAR officials brought to an end the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 93 laps short of its scheduled 312-lap distance.
For reigning Sprint Car Series champion Harvick the call to stop the race was met with mixed feelings. While he gets a chance to defend his title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he would have liked the opportunity to race for the victory at Phoenix, where he had been out front for 143 of 219 laps.
“You said I was happy. I didn't say I was happy,” Harvick told a TV reporter just after climbing out of his car after the call to end the race. “The car just really performed well today and we were able to lead a lot of laps. (The) Caution came out at the wrong time and we didn't get to make up the ground on the race track.
“Sometimes you win some of those things. Sometimes you don't,” he concluded. “But, in the end, the big picture is what it's all about.”
For Busch, getting a chance to race for NASCAR's top-level title seemed a little unbelievable. Busch suffered a serious injury prior to the start of the Sprint Cup season keeping him out of the 2015 Daytona 500 and the next 10 series race. Upon return, Busch was granted a waiver by NASCAR that would allow him to be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup provided he met all the qualification criteria and finish in the Top 30 in the drivers standings. Busch did more than that. Four races into his 2015 season, he won four of five races and finished the year with 11 Top 5s and 15 Top 10s.
“When I returned, we did a good job and we won four out of five and put ourselves in a position to make the Chase,” Busch said. “The rules are the way the rules are and we are going to make the most of it. We are playing with house money and we're rolling into Homestead.”
Busch is guaranteed equaling the best placing of his Sprint Cup career, having finished fourth overall in 2013.
Truex Jr. is looking forward to racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Though he has never won at the Florida track, he has finished in the Top 10 in seven of 10 races there, including a second- and a third-place finish.
“Excited to get to Homestead, which has been a really good track for me over the years, and get a chance to pull off our first win there,” said Truex Jr. “With the way our stuff has been running here lately, I feel what we are taking there (to the final race of the season) might be a little bit better.”
Perhaps, none of the final four drivers vying for the Sprint Cup title is looking forward to the series finale, in Florida, more than Gordon, who is retiring from racing in the series after next weekend's race. It would be an understatement to say Gordon would love to closeout his 24-year career with his fifth championship.
“I can't think of anything sweeter that just having that opportunity to go down there and battle for the championship and seeing what happens,” said Gordon after finishing sixth in the race. “(Today's race) actually went a little better than we anticipated. That was encouraging just as a team and the way we analyzed everything. We'll go do the same thing next week.”
Few drivers seemed as disappointed with the shortened race than Joey Logano, who had come to Phoenix knowing he had to win to be in the final four racing for the title at Homestead-Miami Raceway.
“It's hard to play in the race with rain in the area. You don't know what's going to happen, but you just hope there's another shot,” Logano said. “We had many opportunities to try to get ourselves to the font, we just weren't as fast (as Harvick). We were a solid second-place car, but (Dale Earnhardt) Junior timed it out really well when they pitted to that caution and it worked out well for them.”
There was obviously some bittersweet emotions in Earnhardt Jr.'s voice after winning the rain-shortened event. He sounded happy to get his third win of 2015, and finishing in the Top 5 in 16 races, but couldn't mask the disappointment of not being able to contend for his first ever Sprint-Cup title.
“You like to win them at the checkered flag, but a win is a win so you take it and put it in the record books,” Earnhardt said from pit road. “It is a rain-shortened race and I know there are some guys in the field that would love to see this thing get going again and get an opportunity to race into the last round. Myself, if I had four or six inches at Talladega, I'd be going to Homestead, racing for a championship too. It works out for some, and some it doesn't.”
Rain postponed the start of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, scheduled for 2:45 PM eastern time, for almost seven hours. Cars rolled out of pit road shortly after 9 PM eastern time and the green flag signaled the start to the race just before 9:30. The rain came again as the midnight hour approached and, with no letup in sight, NASCAR officials called the race, making Earnhardt Jr. the winner.
The Ford Ecoboost 400 brings the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to a close on Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
More about Nascar, chase for the Sprint cup, phoenix international raceway, jeff gordon, kevin harvick
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