In a race that was supposed to focused the four drivers who’d wind up competing for the championship next weekend in Miami, someone who’s halfway out the door stole the spotlight.
Matt Kenseth won the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, snapping a 51-race winless streak in what is more than likely the penultimate race in his NASCAR career. Emotions poured out of the veteran, the championship four was set and tempers flared once again.
GOING OUT A WINNER
“Everybody dreams of going out a winner,” Matt Kenseth said to NBC upon exiting his No. 20 car on the frontstretch, celebrating in a plume of smoke billowing from his car. For the Cambridge, Wisconsin native, he went out, earned the win and made that dream a reality.
Kenseth passed Chase Elliott with nine laps remaining in the 312-lap, 500-kilometer race to earn his first victory of the season, second at Phoenix and 39th of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. In what is more than likely his last, he tried to describe the emotions that came over him in the final laps and when he climbed out of his car, hopping into the roof, pointing to the sky and pumping his fist, egging on the rowdy PIR crowd in front of him.
“Yeah, it’s really not describable,” Kenseth said. “With only two (races) left, I didn’t think we probably had a good chance of getting back to Victory Lane. It’s been, I don’t know how many races […] it’s been a long time. We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be, and today it was meant to be. I’ve got to be honest with you, I never dreamed I’d win one of these races, so obviously I’ve been so incredibly blessed throughout my whole career.”
Watching the final 50 laps, I had the Matt Kenseth of the early/mid 2000s in the back of my mind. And with under 10 laps to go, that old, vintage Kenseth came through at Phoenix.
Kenseth hasn’t really ever adopted a nickname throughout his career, spanning almost two decades. But “The Quiet Assassin” is one that I think fits perfectly. Throughout all the wins of his career, it seems that Kenseth was the dominant car maybe 10 percent of the time. He’s the king of lurking inside the top 10 for most of the race, then working his way into the top five with 50 laps to go, and when the checkered flag flies, he was in P1, and went home with the trophy.
That’s exactly what happened on Sunday, a microcosm of his season. One where he’s been the “lame duck” as Erik Jones is taking his ride next season. One where he’s been counted out for the championship and race wins week after week. One where he’s been brushed over by teams with potential rides open because the 45-year-old is “past his prime,” “too old,” and “done” as a racecar driver. By winning Sunday, and passing a young, 21-year-old in doing so, he gave all those haters a proverbial tap and said with a smirk: “I ain’t going out that quietly.”
Following Kenseth across the finish line in second place was Chase Elliott (who we’ll get to momentarily). Then it was Furniture Row Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five. Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 10 from the one-mile desert oval as well.
Some other notables included Joey Logano in 12th, Brad Keselowski in 16th, Ryan Blaney in 17th, Daniel Suarez in 18th, Denny Hamlin in 35th, Jimmie Johnson in 39th and Kyle Larson in 40th after an engine failure, his fourth consecutive DNF of the season.
ELLIOTT GETS REVENGE … BUT ALSO SECOND AGAIN
For a portion of the closing laps, it looked like Chase Elliott wound earn his first Cup win, vault himself into the championship four and cement his spot as one of the superstars of the sport for years to come. But then Matt Kenseth came along, and Elliott was the bridesmaid again.
After passing Kenseth on lap 283 for the lead after a restart, he ultimately ran his tires too hard and was passed with nine laps to go. But that moment wasn’t the one that grabbed headlines with the Dawsonville, Georgia’s name in it—because the nice guy got revenge.
On lap 270, while racing inside the top five for position, Elliott and Denny Hamlin, who wrecked the No. 24 at Martinsville, got together. And Elliott sent a message. He squeezed the No. 11 up into the wall coming off turn four, forcing Hamlin to brush the fence. Five laps later, a right-side tire blew out and Hamlin was sent hard into the wall. His championship four hopes were over.
“Well, I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” Elliott said of the incident post-race to NBC. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me, and that’s the way I see it.” Hamlin, though? He didn’t share Elliott’s sentiments.
“We had a fast car all day,” Hamlin, who led a race-high 193 laps, won stage two and was in a position to vault himself into the title race with a win, said to NBC post-race. “We put ourselves in good position, things just didn’t work out there at the end. Each person has their own opinion of how they do things. It just proves to the people that thought I was a bad guy that (Elliott) would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances. It’s just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate. I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”
KESELOWSKI NABS FINAL SPOT
For most of the Can-Am 500 from Phoenix International Raceway, it looked like Brad Keselowski and the Two Crew wouldn’t be advancing into the championship four. With Denny Hamlin garnering stage points in both stages one and two, dominating the event and leading for most of it, it didn’t look good for Keselowski. But when Matt Kenseth passed Chase Elliott with 28 laps to go, the Rochester Hills, Michigan native was back in the driver’s seat (pun intended).
“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” Keselowski told NBC after clinching the fourth and final spot. “I’m glad I don’t have to relive this day, that’s for sure. I’m just looking forward to going to Homestead. This feels a little bit like Christmas. 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.”
A 16th-place finish wasn’t what Keselowski and Co. wanted coming into PIR, but now they have a shot. This will be Keselowski, and his crew chief Paul Wolfe’s first championship four appearance. The other three competitors (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) already have experience in this championship format. But Keselowski won it all back in 2012. He’ll be at a disadvantage when it comes to speed for sure, but we’ve seen him do it before.
NO EIGHTH TIME IN 2017
Jimmie Johnson was faced with a must-win situation on Sunday from Phoenix. He never showed the speed throughout the playoffs, or this weekend, to contend for wins and a championship. And the chase for his eighth championship came to an end on lap 149.
His No. 48 Chevrolet hit the wall due to a flat tire with no warning, ending his afternoon and a chance for No. 8. The caution came with two laps to go in the second stage and was the first yellow for an on-track incident all afternoon long. Johnson, obviously, was disheartened.
“Unfortunately, we won’t have a chance to make eight this year,” Johnson said to NBC after exiting his wrecked race car. “But we’ll come back next year and try real hard. Disappointed for sure, but the last couple of months we’ve been staying alive. But at this stage, you can’t just stay alive, you have to hit on all eight cylinders. We just can’t get there right now.”
The season-finale and championship race: The Ford EcoBoost 400 from Homestead-Miami Speedway. That’s what’s next. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski will be the four battling for the championship in South Beach. The green flag for the championship race is scheduled to go green at approximately 2:15 p.m. ET on NBC.