Long: Hollow Phoenix finish just part of Chase that has toyed with us all

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – NASCAR still has its sentimental favorite. It has its underdog. It has its reigning champion back, and it has its comeback story.

But, man, the finish to Sunday’s third round of the Chase at Phoenix International Raceway just felt so hollow.

A rain-shortened race? In the desert? Come on.

That’s how this Chase has been. It’s given and taken. It’s toyed with our emotions and then just as the intensity rises, as we are ready for a special moment that will top all that we’ve seen, we are left deflated.

It happened at Talladega in the final race of the second round. The cutoff race many anticipated soon left sour feelings. A restart that wasn’t, then turned into a controversial crash that impacted who advanced in the Chase.

Sunday’s ending in Phoenix was a letdown when rain ended the event after 219 of 312 scheduled laps. You wanted a race that would determine the final three spots in next weekend’s championship round to go the distance to see if the drama that has built in this Chase would lead to desperate actions and disgruntled drivers.

We never got the chance to see how far a driver would go on this day to make it to Miami.

For as much as one wants to blame NASCAR, this wasn’t on series officials. Mother Nature proved that when it wants, it can overmatch Air Titans, jet dryers and typical climatic conditions.

As it took longer to dry the track after each rain shower Sunday, it was apparent that the downpour after the cars had been parked yet again on pit road likely would delay this event another two hours.

Of course, it rained again during that timeframe and would have pushed the event deeper into the night/morning.

No doubt it is frustrating that a series that can start a race just before midnight (Daytona in July) can’t wait longer or go further into the night. The fact is this race was to have started nine hours before it was called. Further delays would have taxed not only competitors but the track, police and others who had been at the track shortly after sunrise.

Many of you will say, “Who cares? It should be all about the competitors.” In a perfect world, yes. This ain’t it.

So what we’re left with is the feeling of, “That’s it?’’ After spending all day waiting, all night watching, this was it? We got to watch drivers stand under umbrellas or run to shelter, not racing for that last transfer spot.

That’s the rule. Once a race has gone past halfway, and NASCAR determines it can’t reasonably restart the event, it is declared official.

Would it make sense to change that rule? Sure, but how would you change it? That the final race of a round must go the distance no matter how many hours or days it takes? What’s acceptable? What’s reasonable?

Although drivers didn’t get their full chance to win and advance to the title round, they had two other races they could have won or scored enough points to have advanced. At some point, NASCAR has to set the rule.

They did the right thing Sunday in calling the race.

Now the sport is left with a final four that includes Jeff Gordon (the sentimental favorite), Martin Truex Jr. (underdog), Kevin Harvick (reigning champ) and Kyle Busch (comeback).

No, this finale doesn’t include the three winningest drivers this season  – Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth – but maybe this finale will deliver more because some will expect less.

Maybe this finale will offer the gusto Harvick showed before the Chase when he said in Chicago about Joe Gibbs Racing: “I think we’re going to pound them into the ground.’’

Maybe this finale will feature redemption for Busch, whose injuries at Daytona kept him out of a car for three months before he wowed many by his dominant summer run to qualify for this Chase.

Maybe this finale will reward Truex, who lost his ride two years ago through no fault of his own, struggled last season on the track and then experienced the pain of his girlfriend’s cancer diagnosis and treatment last year.

Maybe this finale will be a repeat of Martinsville’s victory lane, where fans didn’t want to leave as they watched Gordon celebrate his first win of the season three weeks ago. They serenaded him with chants, and he responded with arm pumps and then running into the crowd to high-five them.

While the last two rounds have ended with a thud, maybe this upcoming weekend will make up for it.

We sure could use it.