Craig Murto: Mother Nature always wins

CRAIG MURTO

Kevin Harvick said it best when he told interviewers after the Sprint Cup race in Phoenix that if you want to catch up on your rainfall, bring NASCAR to town.

The last time I checked, Phoenix was in the desert and normally gets 10 inches of rain each year. Rain is the last thing teams worry about when they tackle the 1-mile Arizona speedway.

But Mother Nature waged battle with NASCAR all day, just as it has numerous times this season. The race, scheduled to begin about 2:30 p.m. on the East Coast, didn’t start until after 9 p.m.

It was frustrating teams and fans, both at the track and waiting in front of their TVs. The mighty Air Titans had the track nearly dry, teams were given the OK to start uncovering their cars, then suddenly the rain started falling again. That scenario repeated numerous times until they finally got the green flag.

There was drama right from the start. Kurt Busch, in a must-win situation, jumped the initial start of the race and received a drive-through penalty. On the initial start, the pole sitter must cross the starting line first. Busch beat Jimmie Johnson by a foot.

Lucky for Kurt Busch, he stayed on the lead lap. Johnson led 44 laps, but it became apparent early that as has been the case in the last four Phoenix races, Kevin Harvick was the car to beat.

Harvick led 143 laps. As lead lap cars were making green-flag pit stops, one of the race’s few cautions flew for an accident. The yellow flew just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the starting line on pit road after his stop, scoring him as the leader of the race. It wasn’t the first time he led, but it would be the most important.

It was about to get good. Harvick was lined up to restart second beside Earnhardt. Joey Logano was third, and he had to win to advance to the championship round. Chase contenders Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski all were in the top 10. How aggressive would Logano be as he tried to get out front? How aggressive was Kurt Busch going to be now that he could smell the lead again. And could anybody beat Kevin Harvick?

Nobody beats Mother Nature. The rains began to fall, and after 214 of the scheduled 313 laps the cars were brought down pit road so jet dryers could keep some heat in the track. But the rain began to fall even harder, and though it was just a small cell the decision to call it official came from NASCAR.

It was a good decision. It was closing in on midnight on the East Coast, and the Air Titans may do a great job, but it was still going to be two hours or more before the track was ready.

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated his third victory of the season, others were left to contemplate what could have been. Carl Edwards didn’t make the cut, and he felt his car was going to be good on the restart. Keselowski and Kurt Busch both felt they could have strong finishes. And like Kurt Busch, Joey Logano hoped for the chance to battle for the win, the only way he could advance.

Speaking of Logano, NASCAR took notice of Matt Kenseth’s unrepentant posts on social media during his suspension and called him to Daytona for a meeting on Monday to ensure there will be no issues at Homestead. I suspect if Kenseth so much as touches Logano’s car he may miss Daytona.

Kevin Harvick will probably be your 2015 Sprint Cup champion. He’s led more laps this season than in any of his career. The team has been on top of its game and they know how to win at Homestead.

But the other three contenders are all good stories. Jeff Gordon is retiring after this season, and it would be great if he could go out with the championship. Kyle Busch missed 11 races and still made the Chase; it would be amazing if he could also win the title. Martin Truex Jr. and the single-car Furniture Row team based in Denver is the underdog, and with Truex’s longtime girlfriend battling ovarian cancer it would be a heartwarming triumph if he could win the championship.

The last few weeks prove that anything can happen in racing and usually does. Hopefully we’ll have an exciting event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and hopefully Mother Nature will cooperate.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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