If there's one place you'd have put good money on the weather not being a problem this year it would be in the drought-hit southwest of the US, and yet perversely it was the rain that was one of the big winners on Sunday in the crucial penultimate race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race results from Phoenix International Raceway and updated championship standings.

Despite Phoenix International Raceway's desert setting, the start of the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 was delayed by over six hours by bands of rain passing over Avondale: every time the track was dried off by the Air Titans, another downpour sent them all the way back to square one. By the time polesitter Jimmie Johnson finally led the field to the green flag, the afternoon event had been converted into a night race under the floodlights.

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Two hours later, while the race was under its first full caution for a collision between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Gase, the rain started to fall again forcing race control to show a red flag to the field. With midnight approaching it was clear that they were out of time to get the track dry again and resume the race, and so the race was called 93 laps short of its full 312-lap distance - only the second time a race has ever ended up being curtailed by rain in 38 events at Phoenix.

The car in front when the race was called was Johnson's team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who duly won his third race of the year and his 26th victory in 576 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts. It's the third time that he's won at the one-mile oval.

"We had an idea that the rain was in the area, but all the circumstances that played out at the end of the race are just kind of luck I think," admitted Earnhardt. "I think the reason why we won this race is because of the way we qualified to give ourselves a position to be up front all night. When something like this quirky happens we were able to capitalise.

"It's a rain-shortened win, but my guys are very proud of it because of how the car ran all weekend and we put ourselves in this position," he added. "It works out for some and some it doesn't. We will take this win it has been a long year and we put a lot of effort into it and we are starting to see some things turn around and work for us like we want. We were fast all weekend, so real proud of this."

Earnhardt's victory this weekend means that Hendrick Motorsports have swept all three races of the Eliminator Round of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup, after Johnson had claimed victory last week at Texas and Jeff Gordon had won at Martinsville at the start of the month. However of the three, only Gordon had still been in the running to make it into the final four contending for the title in next week's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon's win a fortnight ago meant that he alone could afford to be completely relaxed about what happened at Phoenix as it wouldn't affect his place in the final.

On the other hand, for the other seven drivers still in contention coming into this weekend's decider, there was everything to play for - and everything still potentially to lose. And in the end, the deciding vote went to the rain with the Chase situation decided by where everyone was when the red flag came out.

The early finish deprived Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick the chance to win what would have been a fourth consecutive event at Phoenix, despite his having led a race-high 143 laps up to that point. However the reigning champion was nonetheless classified in second position which was more than enough to ensure that he clinched his place in the final four, meaning that he will be able to defend his title next week at Homestead.

"Just the way that the caution fell, I didn't get all my distance back on the race track under green and Dale was able to beat us out," said Harvick. "But hey, you lose some and you win some like that. And sometimes you're on the right side of it and sometimes you're on the wrong side of it. Today, we were on the wrong side of it, but in the big picture we're racing for a championship next week.

"I feel like we've overcome a lot of things throughout the Chase. We've survived and advanced. It hasn't been 100 per cent pretty from one end to the other, but I think as you look at the Chase, it's been championship material and that's proven by making it to the championship race. I'm just really proud of everybody and we're going to go down there and just do like we've done and race as hard as we can."

Penske's Joey Logano was shown in third place, but after disastrous outings at Martinsville and Texas he had been too far behind in the points to be able to stay in the Chase with anything less than an outright win.

"You can't help the weather," he sighed. "I guess it wasn't in the cards tonight, but I'm still super-proud of what this Pennzoil team has done all year. We've had super-fast race cars and we really produced on the race track, executed our plan. Once again, this is a high-pressure race for these guys and to see us drive to the front and have good pit stops all night, but it just didn't work out. Overall, I couldn't be more proud of what we've done this year."

Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch came into Phoenix in second place in the points knowing that all he had to do was avoid trouble and secure a strong finish in the top ten to be virtually guaranteed of a place in the final. Fourth place was more than good enough to clinch it, a remarkable comeback for the driver who missed the first 11 races of the season due to a broken leg and foot he sustained in a support race at Daytona International Speedway in February.

"Our race was pretty uneventful," Busch admitted. "I had a little mishap on pit road, just overshot my marks a little bit, being a little bit slick and got my guys too close to the wall, but past that we had a really good race car. The M&Ms Camry was fast. I felt like we had a good top-three, top-four race car and long runs seemed to be our friends and we got some of those tonight, so couldn't be more pleased to finish where we did and be more pleased to go to Homestead."

"I guess I'm just pleased that I didn't have any bad luck. We didn't necessarily have any good luck through the Chase - we did in the summer, definitely," he added. "It's just been pretty even keel, and I'm happy with that. I feel like we've done some good things through this Chase. We've run up front, we've run strong. We also had a couple mishaps but fortunately they weren't big enough that they eliminated us. We were able to persevere through those things. Now going to Homestead for the first time with the opportunity to win a championship is really awesome."

Polesitter Jimmie Johnson had led the first 44 laps of the race and finished in fifth place, but he had already been eliminated from the Chase following technical issues at Dover International Speedway. Just behind him was his team mate Jeff Gordon, whose place in the final had already been locked-in.

"I'm excited about our chances and our opportunity," said the 44-year-old who will be racing for a possible fifth title next week in what will also be his final NASCAR race before retirement. "Our team is fired up and working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won Martinsville; and we know we've got some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I love that race track. I think we showed that last year. I can't wait to get down there and get that car on track and start tuning it in for the race."

SHR's Kurt Busch had looked set to join Gordon, Busch and his own team mate Harvick in the final four, but his bid was derailed early when he was black-flagged by race control for jumping the start which put him to the back of the 43-car field. Although he battled his way back to seventh time before the rain moved in, it wasn't enough for him to overcome a significant deficit in the points without an outright win which was now out of reach.

"I went when the green flag was waved," Busch insisted over the team radio. "That's when I stood on the gas. Unreal."

"I had no reason to jump the start, I had no reason to get excited," he added after the race. "We had a great season. We won two races, sat on three poles. We did everything possible to put polish on a season like that and get out there with elbow grease and work hard at it. There is some tarnish that is sitting there, polish and polish and that is all I kept doing this whole year."

Eighth place went to non-Chase contender Denny Hamlin (JGR) followed by Penske's Brad Keselowski, who like his team mate had been relying on a race win to advance to the final but who led only four laps mid-race during a round of pit-stops on lap 120. Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola was tenth ahead of Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman, meaning that JGR's Carl Edwards was forced down to 12th place in the final classification.

That proved crucial, because Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was only two places further back. In terms of the championship points situation, that meant Truex clinched fourth place in the standings - and with it, a place in the final - by just five points from Edwards, a huge achievement for the single-car team despite finishing lowest of the eight Chase contenders at Phoenix.

"What can I say about the whole team and everybody at Furniture Row Racing," he said as the team celebrated. "It's just a dream come true for us. I'm just really proud of what we've accomplished this year and to be able to be putting really good weeks together was really awesome.

"I got a little nervous there when the caution came out on us tonight, but all in all we did what we had to do and Homestead is a really good race track for me and that's our kind of race track for this team.

"I'm excited about next week and the opportunity to do something special. This is the kind of thing that you dream about since you were a little kid. Having a shot to win a Sprint Cup Series championship is just awesome and I'm looking forward to the opportunity."

With Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex all confirmed as the last four drivers remaining in the Chase, all eyes now turn to the season finale next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22. What has happened up to this point of the season no longer matters, as the points for the quartet are all reset meaning that no one goes in with any points advantage; neither will there be any bonus points available for laps led.

Instead, the 2015 championship will now come down to just one thing: which of the four is ahead of the others when the chequered flag flies in the Ford EcoBoost 400 in just under seven days time.

See full race results from Phoenix International Raceway and updated NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship standings.

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