After starting seventh and running a relatively quiet race at the front, Matt Kenseth scored his 39th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this past Sunday at Phoenix Raceway by passing Chase Elliott in the closing laps.
At the start of the day, the objective for Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Jimmie Johnson was clear – secure the final transfer spot to the championship-deciding Round of 4 in the playoffs.
Blaney started the day on the pole, but he didn’t stay there long. Chase Elliott, who entered the race nearly in a must-win situation took the lead just 12 laps into the race. In the next 12 laps, Blaney would fall from second to eighth.
On lap 27, Denny Hamlin passed and cleared Chase Elliott for the lead, but Elliott gave him a nudge to hold on to the lead. Hamlin was able to clear Elliott the next lap and got away from the 24 car, taking the lead. As Hamlin pulled away and expanded his lead, Brad Keselowski, who held the final transfer spot by 19 points, had slipped back to 18th.
Hamlin was able to keep the lead through lap 67 when he came under fire from Kyle Larson. Larson made a swift pass on Hamlin to take the lead and the win in the closing laps of stage one.
When the race restarted, Denny Hamlin once again led the race and had to hold off a hard-charging Kyle Larson again. However, Larson’s time in stage two was limited. His engine began to let go on lap 104, and when it expired, his day was over. For Larson, the disappointing end to his race marked the fourth consecutive DNF for the 42 team and the fourth race in a row that Larson has finished worse than 35th.
After the restart, Hamlin continued his dominating performance by leading the rest of the stage, which was much calmer than the first. But on the final lap of the stage, playoff driver Jimmie Johnson blew a tire and hit the outside wall in turn three. It ended the stage, handing the win to Hamlin, and it ended Johnson’s day, as well as his hopes for an eighth championship.
Hamlin, who came into the race 19 points behind the elimination cut line, had now gained 19 stage points based on his second and first place finishes in stages one and two. Keselowski, who had the 19-point edge over Hamlin, had failed to get any stage points, which now meant that whichever of the two drivers finished better, would point their way into the championship round – assuming that Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney didn’t win.
Denny Hamlin continued his dominating performance by leading into stage three. The stage started calm, but with just under 100 laps to go in the race, Ryan Blaney began to report vibrations on the brakes of his car, as well as a soft brake pedal. Just laps later, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blew a tire. He was able to limp the car around to pit road, but two laps after his incident, a tire on Trevor Bayne’s car exploded. Bayne smacked the outside wall almost head-on, to which Bayne said on his radio communications “That hurt a lot.”
For Denny Hamlin, this caution was a nightmare. During his pit stop, he lost the lead. In addition, his team was not sure that they secured all five lug nut on the left-rear tire. His teammate, Matt Kenseth, took the lead for the first time all day, but he wasn’t the only big-name driver who was marching to the front. Chase Elliott, who needed to win to advance to the championship round, was charging forward.
Chris Buescher lost a tire going into turn three on lap 251, and a brake rotor flew through the hood of the car and ignited in flames between the SAFER barrier. It brought out the red flag, and when the race restarted on lap 258, the duel in the desert heated up.
Kenseth led to the start, Chase Elliott was coming. He slid up off of turn four and squeezed Denny Hamlin into the wall, and then went to pass Matt Kenseth for the lead.
Hamlin, who wrecked Chase Elliott while contending for a win at Martinsville a few weeks ago, suspected that the aggressive racing was a result of the crash two weeks ago. While Hamlin did have a slight tire rub, his team said it didn’t look bad. But on lap 275, Hamlin’s tire gave out and the no. 11 smacked the wall in turn three, bringing out a late race caution.
Chase Elliott continued to lead, but Matt Kenseth was closing the gap. With just ten laps left, Kenseth caught Elliott and made the race-winning pass. For Kenseth, this may be his last win, as he does not have a ride in the series next season as of now. For Elliott, it was his seventh second-place finish of the year, and he failed to advance to Homestead.
Brad Keselowski, who had run a quiet race all day, earned the final spot in the championship round of the playoffs. He joined Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick as the four drivers eligible to win a championship next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, and Jimmie Johnson, they will go to Homestead without the possibility of winning the championship.
Next week, a champion will be crowned. Tune into NBC on Sunday to find out who it will be.
For a more in-depth look at the Can-Am 500, tune in to NASCAR Nation on 107.7 The Bronc FM WRRC Thursday night at 7 p.m. eastern time, hosted by the writer of this article, Joseph Passero.