AVONDALE, Ariz. – Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver Sam Hornish Jr. was credited with a 31st-place finish in today’s AdvoCare 500 here at Phoenix International Raceway. While teammate Brad Keselowski moved a step closer to bringing home the first Sprint Cup championship for Penske Racing, the day will perhaps be most remembered for tempers flaring and all the wrecked cars at the end.
“It was just a really frustrating day for our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Team,” Hornish said about his Sunday afternoon behind the wheel of the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge. “We were fighting a tight condition in the center almost all race long. Air pressure adjustments, track bar adjustments…you name it and we tried it. We even pitted there the final time for a wedge adjustment only and we couldn’t go anywhere with it at all. We had a 17th to 20th-place car, but had the day end early. After we got the damage from contact with the 10 car, we had a tire rub and tried to make it back to pit road. Unfortunately the tire blew out before we could make it back and that ended our day before all the fireworks broke out.”
Hornish started today’s race from the 26th position and his Todd Gordon-led team went to work on their handling issues early and as often as possible.
Mike Bliss got into the wall on Lap 18 to bring out the first caution flag of the race. Hornish hit pit road for four tires, fuel, air pressure changes and a track bar adjustment. Hornish was 32nd on the Lap 23 restart. Another stop under the second caution on Lap 54 saw another track bar adjustment.
Hornish hovered from 17th to 20th through the race’s mid-section. He was running 17th at the halfway point on Lap 156. The “Double-Deuce” Dodge got as far up as 14th in the running order on Lap 200, but fell to 18th after feeling a rear vibration on Lap 245.
Hornish, Gordon and crew caught a break at that time as David Ragan hit the wall in Turn 4 to bring out the fourth caution on Lap 273. They were able to hit pit road on Lap 274 for four tires and fuel and soldiered on.
After going 18th on the Lap 276 restart, Hornish was able to hit pit road again only five laps later after Tony Stewart slapped the wall out of Turn 2 to bring out the fifth yellow flag of the race. That was the stop made for a wedge adjustment only.
Hornish was 17th on the Lap 285 restart and still not making progress. After falling two spots, he was getting passed by Danica Patrick out of Turn 2 when contact was made. Damage was done to the quarter-panel which caused a tire rub. The sheet metal caused the tire to blow out before Hornish could make it back onto pit road for service. Hornish smacked the wall hard, demolishing the right front suspension. He was checked out in the infield medical center and released.
While Hornish was relegated to the 31st-place finish, the battle for the 2012 Cup championship had already changed complexion many laps earlier. Jimmie Johnson entered today’s race with a seven-point advantage over Keselowski. But while running seventh on Lap 235, brake heat melted the bead on a tire, causing a blowout and sending Johnson hard into the outside wall. Johnson was able to get his car repaired and return to the race, but was credited with a 32nd-place finish.
With only next week’s season finale at Homestead remaining on the schedule, Keselowski enters the race with a 20-point advantage over Johnson (Keselowski 2,371 & Johnson 2,351). NASCAR statisticians indicated that the Miller Lite Dodge driver has to finish 15th or better in next Sunday’s race to claim the title.
The battle for the championship was definitely narrowed to a two-man race by the fireworks that broke out in the final laps here today. Jeff Gordon was limping slowly around the track (under the black flag) on the next-to-last lap when he spun out Clint Bowyer, who was third in points entering today’s race. The incident also wiped out Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, with Keselowski barely voiding getting into the melee.
The incident caused a momentary brawl between the No. 15 and 24 teams back in the garage area. Because the leader had yet to take the white flag, the race was put under the red and a green-white-checkered finish was called for.
After a 15-minute red-flag period, the race went back to green. Kevin Harvick held off Denny Hamlin by 0.580 seconds for the win. Meanwhile, oil that came from Patrick’s car caused her to spin after getting punted by Jeff Burton heading for the white flag. Patrick gathered her smoking and fluid-dropping car up and was limping slowly on the inside as the leaders came to the checkered flag. A multi-car crash ensued at the finish that collected Patrick, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.
The initial race report listed Kyle Busch finishing third, with Kasey Kahne fourth and Newman fifth. Keselwoski was scored as sixth, with Greg Biffle seventh, Kurt Busch eighth, Menard ninth and Martin 10th.
Controversy reigned over the post-race scene, with drivers and crew chiefs hovering around and in the NASCAR trailer office in the garage area. The official finishing order will not be released until Monday afternoon and potential fines and penalties resulting from actions today will not be announced until Tuesday afternoon.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup tour now heads down to Homestead-Miami Speedway for next weekend’s Ford 400 season finale. Friday’s practice from 1:30 p.m. till 3:00 p.m. kicks off this weekend’s action at Homestead. The entire 43-car starting field will be established in Friday’s qualifying session that begins at 6:10 p.m. (live on SPEED-TV) Saturday’s schedule features practices sessions from 1:00 p.m. till 2:00 p.m. and from 3:00 p.m. till 3:50 p.m. (live on SPEED-TV) Sunday’s Ford 400 (400 miles, 267 laps) has a scheduled 3:00 p.m. EST starting time on the 1.5-mile speed plant located at the north end of the Florida Keys. ESPN-TV and MRN Radio will provide live coverage of all the action.