Retribution and redemption dominated Sunday’s Can-Am 500k al Phoenix Raceway in the second-lo-last race of this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. Matt Kenseth scored an emotional victory, while Brad Keselowski snuck into the final title round spot, selling up a one race finale this weekend among four scries heavyweights for the championship.
Kenseth, eliminated from the title picture after the second round thanks to a crash and penalty al Kansas Speedway, confirmed just last week that he didn’t have a ride next season and estimated this season would be his last after 18 years, one championship and now 39 wins. He rode a 51-race winless streak into Phoenix with just two shots left to break it.
“It’s been an amazing journey and 1 know I’m a big baby right now,” Kenseth said. “Just have one race left and everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today, and nobody can take that away from us.”
Kenseth prevailed thanks to a dramatic surge past Chase Elliott with 12 laps left, a decisive move that prevented Elliott from advancing to the title round. The moment brought heavy emotion out of the typically stoic Kenseth. As he celebrated the win on the frontstretch, Kenseth illustrated both a feeling of relief and the frustration that he’s just as good as or better than most drivers with Cup plans next season. Kenseth hid tears with his trademark wraparound sunglasses and roared towards the frontstretch crowd when he exited the car.
The 45-year-old is being replaced by Erik Jones in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 next season.
Kenseth’s move around Elliott changed the title picture, just like a move that Elliott put on Kenseth’s teammate Denny Hamlin earlier in the race. Hamlin, also facing elimination, dominated Sunday’s race in leading 193 of the first 231 laps. But a pit stop during a caution for Trevor Baync’s heavy Turn 4 crash on Lap 230 slid Hamlin a few spots back in the field. That put him within reach of an improving Elliott, still put off by Hamlin’s tactics toward the end of the third-round opener at Martinsville Speedway three weeks ago. There, Hamlin shoved then-leader Elliott hard into Turn 3 with four laps left and caused Elliott to crash. The two verbally sparred after that race, and Elliott had a perfect chance at payback when he caught Hamlin late at Phoenix. After two laps of bumping Hamlin, Elliott made a move under the No. 11 exiting Turn 4, pinching Hamlin high and forcing his Toyota against the wall, damaging Hamlin’s left front tire. It soon blew, sending Hamlin into the Turn 3 wall. He was out of the race and out of the championship.
“I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” Elliott said. “Em happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.” Of course, Hamlin saw it differently. “Each person had their own opinion of how they do things and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “It’s just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage and - that’s the way it is.”
With Hamlin dispatched, Elliott needed to hold the lead to the finish to advance thanks to his win-or-else point standings predicament. But he couldn’t do it, finishing second for the fifth time this season and remaining winless in the Cup series after nearly two full seasons. As the track conditions began to change during the final 31-lap run, Elliott said, his car lost traction and speed.
“Once the rubber laid back down I was just hanging on and hoping I could get to (lapped) traffic before I started going away,” Elliott said. “It’s just such a bummer. I was telling my guys we’ll get it right someday, or I’ll get it right someday. We’ve had so many good opportunities and at some point, we’ve just got to close.”
The beneficiary of all of this proved to be 2012 series champion Keselowski. His Ford labored all day and wound up 16th, but it was enough to put his name alongside Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick as title contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Athlon Sports contributor@CeoffreyMiller
NEWS & NOTES
TITLES AT STAKE For the second year, four drivers each in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series will use the same format as the Cup series to decide the champion. On the XFINITY side, the championship will be decided among three JR Motorsports drivers (William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler) and Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric, Two of the four (Sadler and Hemric) haven’t won this season, while Byron heads to Homestead with the momentum of a win Saturday at Phoenix. Allgaier will be without his crew chief thanks to a penalty for an unattached brake cooling hose discovered after the Phoenix event. In the truck series, Johnny Sauter is the only NASCAR national series driver who can defend a 2016 title as part of a group of four eligible drivers that includes Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Austin Cindric.
JJ OUT, KESELOWSKI IN Jimmie Johnson won’t defend his championship at Homestead-Miami and will have to save a shot at a record-setting eighth championship for another year “The last couple of months we’ve been staying alive and at this stage with the Round of 8 and then the Round of 4, you can’t just stay alive,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders, and we just haven’t been there, unfortunately.” Brad Keselowski is at the other end of the spectrum. Despite a disappointing weekend handling-wise for his No. 2, the Penske team advanced. “This feels a little bit like Christmas,” he said. “Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive, and it ended up paying off in the end.”
In the three-year era of NASCAR’s four-driver finale at Homestead, the longest green flag run to finish the race has been seven laps. If that trend holds, a late restart will again prove pivotal to the title chase and could be beneficial to Martin Truex Jr. This season, Truex has had the most speed on restarts among all series drivers. His average restart speed rank (5.8) is notably better than fellow title contenders Kevin Harvick (9.1), Kyle Busch (11) and Brad Keselowski (11.7).
TRACKS ON TAP
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Race: Ford EcoBoost400
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Location: Homestead, Fla. Date: Sunday, Nov. 19
TV: 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Layout: 1.5-mile oval Turns/Banking: 4/18-20°
2016 Winner: Jimmie Johnson
Race: Ford EcoBoost300
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Date: Saturday, Nov. 18
TV: 3:30 p.m. ET.NBCSN
2016 Winner: Daniel Suarez
Camping World Truck Series
Race: Ford EcoBoost 200
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Date: Friday, Nov. 17
TV: 8 p.m. ET, FS1
2016 Winner: William Byron