Sunday’s Can-Am 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway was about as wild and emotional and affair as we’ve seen all year, a crazy roller coaster of ups and downs for drivers, teams and fans alike.
In the end, it was lame-duck Matt Kenseth, on his way out the door at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for the younger and presumably less expensive Erik Jones, who drove his butt off to win over Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and the aforementioned Jones.
And the race set the championship field for next week, which will feature Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. racing heads-up for a championship. Whoever has the best finish of the four will be the champion.
The Phoenix race demonstrated five key components to NASCAR racing that are some of the reasons it’s still so damned compelling to watch.
Talk about a ton of sub-plots: Which driver would be the last one to make it into the final four? It turned out to be Keselowski, but for most of the race it looked like he’d get knocked out. Would Chase Elliott rough up Denny Hamlin and finally win a race? Yes and no — Hamlin led a race-high 193 laps but Elliott ran him into the wall and out of the playoffs.
Elliott, meanwhile, got passed by Kenseth with 10 laps to go and wound up finishing second for the fourth time in nine playoff races.
Then there was Jimmie Johnson, who was racing for an eighth championship but got knocked out by a cut tire just before the end of the second stage. There were all sorts of plots and subplots all day long, and, yes, stage racing added to the intrigue.
Kenseth is one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet — smart, funny and one hell of a wheelman. And he had dark glasses on during his post-race interview as he fought through the emotions running through him. Don’t let anyone kid you: This meant the world to Kenseth and he drove like it. That was real emotion you saw in the post-race interviews.
“It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know?” said Kenseth. “You always feel like you can get the job done, but, you know, if you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie, so we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today, so we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”
And when asked about spraying team owner Joe Gibbs with champagne in Victory Lane, Kenseth quipped, “What’s he going to do, fire me?”
In racing, you need a good guy and a bad guy. Depending on where your loyalties are, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott each fit one of those roles. Elliott was leading at Martinsville two weeks ago when Hamlin drilled him into the wall with two laps to go. At Phoenix, Elliott ran Hamlin up into the wall and a few laps later, Hamlin popped a tire and crashed, his playoff hopes over.
Interestingly, both men owned it in their post-race comments.
“Oh, well I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” said Elliott. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.”
“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things,” said Hamlin. “It just proves to people who thought I was the bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances. That’s part of racing. I got into him and he retaliates, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”
Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske Ford were off the pace most of the day, failing to pick up any points in either of the first two stages. But Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe persisted, and at the end, the team gutted out a 16th-place finish, which was enough to advance them to the title race next week.
“This feels a little bit like Christmas,” said Keselowski. “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.”
Elliott raced Hamlin physically, making contact with him on a couple of occasions. Elliott didn’t put the bumper to Kenseth, who he’d never had an issue with before. And, bummed out as he was that he didn’t win, Elliott walked down to Victory Lane to congratulate Kenseth on his win.