For the second straight round in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a driver came through in a must-win situation. This time Kevin Harvick punched his ticket to the next playoff bracket with an dominating performance Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Harvick's advancement, though, came at the expense of Jeff Gordon, whose dream of a fifth championship fell short. Needing to pass Harvick but unable, Gordon still would have advanced had Ryan Newman not completed a dramatic pass of Kyle Larson on the final lap. But that spectrum of emotions has defined this season's Chase, with Gordon seemingly locked in one second to being victimized the next.
1. Kevin Harvick (Last week: 2)
With three consecutive wins and four in the past five races, Phoenix has become Harvick's personal playground. Although the driver is a large component, the domination exhibited by the No. 4 this season on the one-mile oval is something to behold. In 624 combined laps between the spring and fall races, Harvick was out front 78 percent of the time.
2. Joey Logano (LW: 1)
What Logano was hoping would be a straightforward and unadventurous path to Homestead turned into anything but thanks to a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit box. It cost him track position and eventually a lap to the leaders. A couple of timely cautions, though, got the 22 car back on the lead lap, and from there Logano climbed to sixth.
3. Jeff Gordon (LW: 4)
If Gordon had led a== one lap Sunday it would have been him, and not Ryan Newman, advancing. As it was, he missed transferring by a single point. And with everything that transpired at Texas, you know that is going to be something Gordon thinks about for a long time.
4. Brad Keselowski (LW: 3)
Unable to muster that Talladega magic, Keselowski's bid for a second championship came up just a bit short. In the end, what prevented him from moving on wasn't his audacious attempt to pass Johnson and Gordon at Texas. Instead it was Martinsville, where a parts failure cost Keselowski a surefire top-10.
5. Denny Hamlin (LW: 7)
Just as Hamlin foretold, the third round of the Chase played to his strengths and allowed him to top-10 his way to the final four. Whether the No. 11 car has the speed to keep pace with Harvick and Logano is doubtful, but Hamlin at least has a shot.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 5)
Although the end was far different than either wanted, Earnhardt and Steve Letarte have to be pleased with how their final season together turned out. And they have one last chance to create an additional memory, as Homestead should be a strong track for the No. 88 team and give Earnhardt and Letarte a chance to end their partnership in Victory Lane.
7. Ryan Newman (LW: 8)
Yeah, the zero in the win column is a tad bothersome, as are just four top-five finishes. However, considering where the No. 31 team was at a year ago compared to its current state, Newman deserves accolades for elevating a middling outfit into a championship contender. No, it wasn't flashy, but it certainly was effective.
8. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 6)
Texas was a one week-reprieve apparently, since Phoenix saw Johnson return to the underperformance -- and rotten luck -- that's comprised much of his Chase. The 48 team is winless at Homestead ,and after a trying season, ending the year in Victory Lane would be welcome.
9. Matt Kenseth (LW: 10)
A year removed from winning seven times and finishing runner-up in points, Kenseth enters the final round winless and with no chance at the championship. It continues a strange phenomenon where the drivers who placed second in points have combined to win just one race the following year.
10. Kyle Larson (LW: 11)
After getting used up by Newman on the final lap, Larson handled himself well. He didn't lash out, swear revenge or overreact. That may seem like a big deal, but not many drivers -- let along rookies -- would have acted with such aplomb.
11. Kyle Busch (LW: 9)
At Texas, Busch was able to recover from a wheel falling off and still finish fourth. There was no comeback, however, from what happened Sunday with Busch spinning into the path of Clint Bowyer, leaving both cars with heavy front-end damage.
12. Kurt Busch (LW: 15)
On a weekend when he made headlines for all the wrong reasons, Busch kept it quiet on the track. The result was his third top-10 in four weeks and his second consecutive with new crew chief Tony Gibson.
13. Carl Edwards (LW: 12)
That Edwards made it to the third round further illustrates his talent. Despite being saddled with a car lacking much speed, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig squeezed everything they could out of the 99 Ford and should be quite pleased with their effort.
14. Jamie McMurray (LW: 13)
The rumor mill has McMurray's crew chief Keith Rodden possibly headed back to Hendrick Motorsports where he would reunite with Kasey Kahne. If that does happen it would be a considerable loss, since Rodden in his first year with McMurray has upgraded the No. 1 team into consistent challengers and seemingly has it poised for a breakout 2015 season.
15. Greg Biffle (LW: Unranked)
While nothing to get overly excited about, Biffle has put together three straight solid weeks after being virtually nonexistent for much of the Chase. Perhaps he can recapture some of his old Homestead magic, where Biffle won three consecutive races from 2004-06. On second thought, never mind: He has just one top-five finish in the past seven races at the South Florida track.