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NASCAR Driver Capsules

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[November 06, 2014]  The Sports Xchange
 
 Capsules for the eight drivers remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
 
 By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore

22 JOEY LOGANO, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: With former points leader Jeff Gordon tumbling to fourth place, Joey Logano moved into a tie for first place in the Chase with former teammate Denny Hamlin after Sunday's race at Texas. The pair are two points ahead of third-ranked Ryan Newman and 12 points ahead of fourth-ranked Gordon.

PHOENIX RECORD: 11 career starts, 0 wins, 2 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Third in fall 2010. Finished ninth in this race last year and was fourth in this year's spring race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Logano needs to stay out of trouble and continue the consistency that has gotten him to this point in the Chase. However, a win at Phoenix would assure him one of the final four spots in the season-ending and championship-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16. Logano, who is a short-track specialist, has never won at Phoenix in the Cup series.

"I feel like a broken record because I feel like I keep saying this week after week, but we just need to keep doing what we've been doing," Logano said. "Like (crew chief) Todd Gordon said, we aren't out here trying to reinvent the wheel, we are just trying to polish the wheel. We are just fine-tuning everything that we've been doing all year long. This team has had some bad luck, and when we do, we fight through it and make the best of it, just like what happened in Texas. ... That's what this team does. And that is what we will keep doing, all the way through Homestead."

LOOKING BACK: Logano had a costly issue on pit road that knocked him back in the pack during Sunday's race at Texas, but with crafty strategy, was able to climb back for a decent 12th-place finish.

ETC.: Logano has completed 96.9 percent (3,399) of the 3,509 laps contested in 11 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 15.1, and his average finish is 15.9. He has two DNFs there.

11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: After being in the bottom half of the eight drivers remaining in the Eliminator Round prior to Texas, Hamlin vaulted all the way up to a tie for first place with Joey Logano after the race in the Lone Star State. Hamlin and Logano lead third-ranked Ryan Newman by two points and fourth-ranked Jeff Gordon by 12 points.

PHOENIX RECORD: 18 career starts, 1 win, 8 top-5s, 9 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2012. Finished 28th in this race last year and was 19th in this year's spring race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: All Hamlin has to do is maintain Sunday at Phoenix and he'll likely advance to the championship race at Homestead on Nov. 16. Hamlin is a picture of confidence coming into this Sunday's race.

"Definitely the breaks are falling our way, for sure," he said. "The performance is not necessarily falling our way, but obviously we're kind of gifted some circumstances we're in right now. But we have an opportunity to capitalize on that, and I believe if we can get to Homestead. ... (Phoenix is) going to be more intense. You're going to have eight guys that have a shot at making it. We all know winning puts us in. I think there's three of us that can finish top 10 and make it. But everyone else is going to be fighting for a win. ... I would just tell the fans to hang on and buckle up and see what happens."

LOOKING BACK: Hamlin had a decent race at Texas. He kept pace with the leaders, led three laps and finished a decent 10th place. In most circumstances, Hamlin wouldn't have jumped that high in the standings based upon a 10th-place finish, but when Jeff Gordon was bulldozed by Brad Keselowski, it opened the route for Hamlin to vault all the way into a tie at the top of the Chase charts.

ETC.: Hamlin has completed a near-perfect 99.5 percent (5,668) of the 5,694 total laps contested in 18 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 11.9 and his average finish is 11.3. He has zero DNFs there.

31 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Ryan Newman slipped slightly in the standings after Texas. He's now in third place, but just two points behind the two drivers tied for first place, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. In addition, Newman leads fourth-ranked Jeff Gordon by 10 points.

PHOENIX RECORD: 24 career starts, 1 win, 8 top-5s, 10 top-10s, 4 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2010. Finished 10th in this race last year and was seventh in this year's spring race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Newman continues his Cinderella-like march through the Chase. He has the worst overall record this season of all eight remaining Chase drivers, is one of two (Matt Kenseth is the other) drivers who still has not won a race this season, and yet here he is, just two points out of the points lead. On finding himself where he is, Newman made an interesting observation:

"Why is because I want to. How is the more difficult question to answer. Really, it's about having fun. (Crew chief) Luke Lambert, our entire team and the entire organization at Richard Childress Racing are doing an awesome job. We've all been having a lot of fun because we get to go out there and do what we love to do. It's been a lot of fun for me, so I think it's helped with our consistency. I think it's helped with our performance and I think I have stepped it up. I think the guys on pit road have stepped it up, as well as the guys in the garage. We are doing better things with the tools that we have. ECR and those guys have also stepped it up."

LOOKING BACK: After back-to-back top-five finishes at Talladega and Martinsville, Newman finished 15th at Texas, falling back in the field late in the race. Had that not happened, he may have been able to leave the Lone Star State with a top-10 showing. But alas, it didn't play out that way for Newman.

ETC.: Newman has completed a mediocre 91.2 percent (6,900) of 7,569 total laps in 24 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 12.7 and average finish is 18.2. He has five DNFs there.
 


24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: After being at the top of the Chase standings after the first race of the Eliminator Round (Martinsville), Jeff Gordon plummeted Sunday at Texas, dropping to fourth place, 12 points behind the two drivers tied for first now, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. Gordon trails third-ranked Ryan Newman by 10 points and leads the two drivers tied for fifth place, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who are just one point behind Gordon.

PHOENIX RECORD: 31 career starts, 2 wins, 11 top-5s, 21 top-10s, 3 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2007 and spring 2011. Finished 14th in this race last year and was fifth in this year's spring race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: While mathematically he doesn't have to, Gordon has just one thing in mind heading to Phoenix: to win the race. Still fuming at how he was taken out by Brad Keselowski at Texas, which turned what could have been a win to a dismal 29th-place finish, Gordon is likely going to be more on the offensive than perhaps any other race he's been in this season.

"We are just going to take this fire that's inside of us and this momentum (from the entire season), we are going to take all that to Phoenix and win that race," Gordon said.

If he does that, Gordon will be the only remaining Chase driver to have won a race in the Eliminator Round, as previously eliminated Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, both Hendrick Motorsports teammates of Gordon, won the first two races of this round.

LOOKING BACK: For the second straight race, Gordon came oh, so close to winning. He just barely missed catching teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville the week before, and appeared headed for a potential win or, at the very least, a top-five finish, only to have Brad Keselowski ruin his day at Texas, leaving Gordon with an eventual disappointing 29th-place showing.

ETC.: Gordon has completed 98.1 percent (9,513) of the 9,698 total laps contested in 31 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 10.9 and his average finish is 11.3. He has three DNFs there.

20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 5th, 13 points out of first place; only one point out of the top four spots which will advance to the Championship Round of the Chase for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. Lost one spot last week.

PHOENIX RECORD: One win and nine top-10 finishes including five top-five's in 24 starts.
 


LOOKING AHEAD: While Kenseth has not run well the last two races at Phoenix, he still calls the track "a fun place since it's configured quite differently than anywhere else we go, and it's a place where passing is a little more difficult. I think that Phoenix continues to get better. I feel that whenever the pavement ages, the groove moves around, and the pace slows up a little bit, that the racing is always a bit better. I think it's a great race track and there's been a lot of excitement at Phoenix. With this new Chase format, I think it's going to be a great race on Sunday."

LOOKING BACK: Kenseth won the pole and led twice for 59 laps, but a late-race problem on pit road dropped him out of the top 10 and forced the team to play catch-up for the final 140 laps at Texas. Kenseth suffered damage to his car late in the event forcing him to make an unscheduled pit stop to fix the damage and get four new tires. As a result, he ended the night in 25th place. "We were okay when we were up front and had track position, but we had a problem in the pits and lost our track position," said Kenseth. "The way my car drove -- I was kind of afraid of how it would be in traffic. We got most of our track position back, stayed out on tires and just couldn't get by Kurt (Busch) there (while battling for the lead on the restart following the eighth of 13 caution flags). Then we went to the back again having to get tires (on the ensuing yellow flag). Then we got caught up in a restart deal that was three-wide which did some damage, and we could just never overcome it. Obviously, today was a disaster as far as where we finished and how at the end of the race I couldn't pass cars that got lapped earlier in the race. So, it was a poor performance on the scoreboard."

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ETC.: Crew chief Jason Ratcliff is quite optimistic about how his team will perform this weekend in the final race of the Eliminator Round. "I think that our test at Phoenix went well a few weeks ago," said Ratcliff. "The first day-and-a-half we were a little off, but we were able to find a few things at the end of the test that should help us this weekend. It's been one of those tracks that, for whatever reason, has been a bit of a struggle for us. Obviously, we need to be better there than last fall, but I feel that we've made up a lot of ground. I see no reason why we can't have a good top-five run based on the speeds we had leaving the test last month."

99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 6th, 13 points out of first place; only one point out of the top four spots which will advance to the Championship Round of the Chase for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

PHOENIX RECORD: Finished eighth in the March race. Overall has two wins and 12 top-10 finishes including seven top-five's in 20 starts. Last win came in the spring race of 2013.

LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards calls Phoenix "one of my favorite race tracks. It's the first place I ever raced a pavement race in USAC Silver Crown Series. I love going out there. We somehow fought and clawed our way to a top-10 finish at Texas, which is what we needed to do. There's no better place for us to go than Phoenix to lock ourselves into the final round. I'm excited about it. I'm really proud of my whole team and everyone at Roush Fenway Racing for all their hard work and for getting us to this point in the season." Edwards will leave the team after the season and move to Joe Gibbs Racing.

LOOKING BACK: Edwards had high hopes for the weekend after qualifying 11th and running well in both practice sessions on Saturday. But once the race started, he immediately began dropping back and spent most of the first half of the race running around 23rd. At one point, Edwards was two laps down. But a rash of caution flags allowed him to get back on the lead lap, and his crew continued to make adjustments to the car as Edwards rallied in the final 125 laps to finish ninth. "We got lucky there at the end and my guys never quit," said Edwards. "I have no idea where we are in points but we certainly finished better than we should have tonight. It was a great night when for a while it didn't look like it was going to be."

ETC.: Edwards is very optimistic about his chances of advancing to the Championship Round. "We hope to go out there (Phoenix) and perform the way we know we can, and move on to Homestead where we had a good test the other day. This is the most fun stuff you can do as a race car driver is to go to the race track and have all the pressure and the excitement of a championship battle."

2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford

Team: Team Penske

WHERE HE STANDS: 7th, 17 points out of first place; only five points out of the top four spots which will advance to the Championship Round of the Chase for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

PHOENIX RECORD: Won the pole and finished a career-best third in the March event for his fourth top-six finish in the last five races.

LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski needed to win at Talladega last month to advance to the Eliminator Round. He did exactly that, and he is now facing the same situation as the series heads to Phoenix. The only sure way to advance to the Championship Round is by winning on Sunday. "We were able to do that in the last round," said Keselowski. "I am optimistic we can do that in this round. I completely understand that and am ready for that challenge. When it comes to moments like this, great teams have to step it up. I believe we are a great team, and we are ready for the challenge."

LOOKING BACK: Keselowski, who led twice for 22 laps, was running third when the caution flag came out very late in the Texas race. On the ensuring restart, Keselowski saw an opening between leader Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and tried to drive in between the two Hendrick Motorsport teammates. Keselowski bounced hard off Gordon, cutting the left rear tire on Gordon's car and sending Gordon spinning to bring out the final caution flag of the evening.

On the final restart, Keselowski was unable to get by Johnson and ended up third when Kevin Harvick got around him. Following the race, Gordon stopped his car next to Keselowski and got out to express his displeasure with Keselowski. The screaming and shouting turned into a full-fledged fist fight with both Keselowski and Gordon ending up bruised and battered.

"There was a hole and I went for it," said Keselowski after NASCAR finally got the post-race skirmish under control. "It closed up and we bounced off each other and kept going. It was just a battle for the win. We did a lot of clawing. I wish we would have gotten a better finish out of it, but we didn't. It was hard fought. I am doing everything I can to win this race and stay in the championship hunt."

ETC.: Car owner Roger Penske was quick to come to the defense of his driver.

"The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has provided great excitement and intense competition," said Penske in a statement released Monday afternoon. "Brad Keselowski is a champion who competes to win in every race, which is what I expect of him. While the actions by others following the race in Texas were unfortunate, Brad has my 100 percent support as we now move on to Phoenix for the next stage of the NASCAR championship."

Keselowski said he doesn't understand why he is taking so much criticism for the way he races.

"I'm doing everything I can to win this championship, racing at 100 percent," said Keselowski. "That's something I'm not going to be ashamed for. If I was out there wrecking guys to do it, that would be one thing. But I think a little bit of rubbing was probably how this sport was created, probably how it should move forward. I've been through these scrummages before and I'll probably go through them in the future. That's OK. I can take it. I'll patch up my lip and go on."

4 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 8th, 18 points out of first place; only six points out of the top four spots which will advance to the Championship Round of the Chase for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

PHOENIX RECORD: Has won the last two races and three out of the last four to give him a track record five wins. Will be seeking his third straight victory overall and third straight in the fall.
 


LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick calls Phoenix "a very challenging race track. It has a very unique layout that is different at both ends. I feel like I've been racing at Phoenix my entire career, and I feel that what I've learned there has helped me be successful on the other flat tracks we race at. The race track continues to change as it ages, so you're always tweaking to keep up with the changes every time we head out there. Phoenix is very special to me. To be able to go back and win races there and be successful means a lot to me."

LOOKING BACK: Harvick was right in the middle of the late-race battle for the win and the post-race skirmish on pit road, and he enjoyed every moment of both scenarios.

"A lot happened at the end of this race," said Harvick, who finished second for his 12th top-10 finish in 24 races at Texas. "We fought all day and put ourselves in position to win. Just proud of my Budweiser guys. They did a great job. We were able to put ourselves back in the hunt (to advance to the Championship Round)."

Following the race, Harvick came up from behind and pushed Brad Keselowski as the post-race pushing and shoving and screaming turned into fists being thrown.

"I mean if you are going to run into people all the time you are doing to have to fight your own fight, so I helped him get into it," said Harvick, who jumped back after grabbing Keselowski and was not part of the post-race fisticuffs.

ETC.: When it comes to the new format for the Chase for the Championship and the fact that four drivers are being eliminated any every three races, Harvick admits "it's being played rough. It's one of those deals where everybody is trying to get everything they can. You just do everything you can to do the best for your team. As it gets closer to the end, the intensity ratchets up. At this point of the year, everybody's just going for broke trying to win a race (and automatically qualify for the Championship Round), get the best finish they can to end the season on a good note. It's hard racing. It's fun."

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